Bahrain battled to a gripping 1-1 draw against Kuwait in their final Group B game last night to qualify for the semi-finals of the eight-nation 25th Arabian Gulf Cup at the 65,000-seat Basra International Stadium in Iraq.
The result means that Bahrain have topped Group B with seven points while Qatar, who also drew 1-1 with the UAE at the Al Minaa Olympic Stadium, finished in second place with four points.
Bahrain will now play second-placed Group A team Oman in the second semi-final on Monday evening while Qatar will take on hosts and Group A leaders Iraq earlier the same day in the first semi-final.
Looking a bit scratchy when the game started, Bahrain appeared to find their rhythm soon after Kuwait had managed to find their way into their box three times in the first few minutes.
Soon, the re-jigged team, with head coach Helio Sousa having shuffled his players for the third game in a row, was into its stride with immaculate passes confounding the Kuwait players as their goalkeeper Sullman Abdulghafoor was tested time and again.
It seemed to be only a matter of time before Bahrain would break through Abdulghafoor’s defences and that moment arrived in the 26th minute when Sayed Dhiya Saeed ran down the left of the Kuwait box to send the ball screeching across the turf to Mahdi Al Humaidan, who tapped the ball past a diving Abdulghafoor into the net.
The few hundred Bahrain supporters in the stands, who were vastly outnumbered by the thousands in the half-full stadium lustily cheering for Kuwait, erupted in delight.
Just three minutes later, they could have had a reason to celebrate again but Mohammed Marhoon’s strong kick off a long pass ricocheted off Abdulghafoor’s boot.
Barely five minutes later, Abdulghafoor was in action again as he dived to make a brilliant save off a Komail Al Aswad kick that sent the ball rocketing to his left.
Kuwait were looking overwhelmed by the relentless Bahrain attacks on their goal as the first half wore on but a moment of pure luck allowed them to draw equal in the 45th minute.
Hamad Al Qallaf fired an airborne pass from the left towards Shabib Al Khaldi – positioned right in front of Bahrain captain and goalkeeper Sayed Mohamed Jaafar – who dived to head the ball as it lost height. The ball hit the back of his right shoulder and looped in a gentle arc over Jaafar to end up in the back of the net.
The Kuwait-supporting section of the crowd celebrated wildly but that was to be their only moment of joy in the game, with heartbreak destined to follow, as the two teams left the field, tied 1-1, at the interval.
In the second half, Sousa rang in the subsitutions, bringing in Abdulla Yusuf Helal, Ali Madan, Waleed Abdul Hayam, Sayed Redha Isa and Abdulwahab Al Malood off the bench as Bahrain sought to end the group stage of the tournament with a third successive win.
But, despite Bahrain’s continued dominance of proceedings, that elusive second goal still evaded their grasp and, when the final whistle blew to signal a 1-1 draw, travelling Kuwaiti supporters in the stands began to celebrate, thinking they had also qualified for the semi-finals.
Soon, the realisation struck them that Qatar, whose crucial last Group B game took place at the same time as the Bahrain-Kuwait encounter, had also drawn 1-1 with the UAE and finished with four points – the same as Kuwait’s tally – but had placed second in the table because of goal difference.
Reflecting on his team’s performance in a post-match Press conference, Sousa said his players had done a “fantastic job.”
“We knew it would be a hard game but our guys did a fantastic job,” he enthused. “I thought we controlled the game for long periods … in the first half alone, we created three, four chances.
“We were in control for most of the second half as well. We were fighting hard, we were aggressive throughout and wanted to nail the game but, whenever Kuwait were pressed, they would put long balls and that would break the momentum.”
Sousa added that his team also had to play a little carefully after experienced Romanian referee Istvan Kovacs liberally handed out yellow cards to five Bahrain players over the course of the match, with three awarded to Al Aswad, Al Humaidan and Hamad Al Shamsan in the first 15 minutes alone.
Kovacs, later, also handed Kuwait’s Al Qallaf a red card in the 68th minute, reducing their side to 10 men but Bahrain couldn’t manage to take advantage of their numerical superiority.
“Those yellow cards necessitated a change in strategy,” Sousa explained. “We didn’t want our players sent off so they had to play a little more carefully.”
He added that he was reshuffling the starting 11 in each match to ensure that each member of the 23-man squad got some game time.
“We have 23 very good players,” Sousa declared. “We must help our young players develop by giving them big-match experience. That is why the starting 11 has been different in these three games.
“Also, if we win, we win because of all 23 players, not 11 or just one player. All 23 players are of equal importance for us.
“And I must thank the travelling Bahraini supporters. They are truly fantastic and have given us great support.”
The Bahrain-Oman semi-final will kick off at 8.15pm on Monday.