BAHRAIN last night looked determined to prove even minnows can dream of becoming monarchs by beating Iraq 5-3 (after extra time 2-2) in a thrilling semi-final shoot-out of the 24th Gulf Cup in Doha yesterday.
Sunday’s final will see Bahrain taking on Saudi Arabia who defeated Qatar 1-0 later in the night.
Bahrain converted all their five penalties through Mohammed Al Hardan, Jasim Al Shaikh, Maroon, Thiago Augusto and Ali Madan while Ali Faez, Dhurgham Ismail and Bayesh were on target for Iraq and Mohammed Qasim Majid missed the fourth kick which proved decisive in the end.
The Reds are now on the cusp of winning their maiden Gulf Cup on Sunday. An inspired run indeed for a team written off, and even ridiculed, following a goalless draw against defending champions Oman and a 0-2 defeat to Saudi in the first two group matches.
With just one point and no goals to their credit, Bahrain certainly looked down in the pits but a nerve-wracking 4-2 victory over 10-time champions Kuwait in the last group match to book a berth in the semi-final and yesterday’s anther heart-stopping victory over Iraq has put them firmly on way to the pinnacle.
It was another inspiring performance in a match of fluctuating fortunes which went to the wire – 2-2 at the end of half-time, full-time and extra-time - before Bahrain could pull off a coup in the penalty shootout much to the joy of their passionate fans, including two plane full of hardcore Red supporters who were specially flown into Doha for the semi-finals.
It was an action-packed semi-final as Iraq went ahead as early as the sixth minute through a goal by Mohanad Ali.
But that joy was short-lived as Bahrain bounced back with Abdulla Al Hazza equalising in the 14th minute.
Iraq regained the lead four minutes later through Ibrahim Bayesh but there were more spills and thrills in store before half-time.
Bahrain’s patience and perseverance paid off in first-half injury time with Mohammed Jasim Marhoon finding the net in nick of time to head for the break with the scores even and, more importantly, confidence restored.
Neither team could score in the second-half or in the extra-time.
In the penalty shootout, the underdogs Bahrain kept their nerve under mounting pressure while the favourites, at least 50 places above in Fifa rankings, lost theirs.
Bahrain coach Helio Sousa was naturally elated at the Press conference last night, after having been at the receiving end after the first two group matches.
The Portuguese coach rightly attributed the latest success to ‘a complete team effort’.
“I’m proud of this team. Each and every player played their part to almost perfection. We were positive right though, even when we were down a goal on two occasions,” said Sousa, who took over the team just five months ago.
“I’m very happy. I have 23 fully fit and passionate players and they are determined to show what they are capable of. Today, they proved they can beat the best and are keen to prove it again on Sunday.”