Manama Ė A heroic defensive display to earn a goalless draw against Bahrain in the away leg of a two match playoff has kept New Zealandís dream of making next yearís FIFA World Cup alive but delicately balanced.
Itís now a simple equation for the All Whites when they step out at Westpac Stadium in Wellington for the return leg on November 14. Beat Bahrain to reach the finals of a World Cup for the first time since 1982.
A score draw would be enough for Bahrain Ė as it was in the away leg of their Asian playoff against Saudi Arabia last month Ė while another goalless draw sends the tie to extra time.
In the hot and hostile environment at Bahrain National Stadium, New Zealand were always going to experience periods of pressure but they soaked it all up and found extra energy in the last 20 minutes to trouble Bahrain at the other end.
Much had been made about Ricki Herbertís departure from a previously favoured 4-4-1-1 formation to a more attacking 3-4-3 but New Zealandís back three of Ivan Vicelich, Ryan Nelsen and Ben Sigmund were dogged and composed, while Leo Bertos was performed admirably in the unaccustomed role of right wing back.
Mark Paston was assured in goal and pulled off a stunning save at his near post to deny Faouzi Mubarak Aaish on the hour and somehow reflexed Mohamed Ahmed Hubailís shot over the bar 15 minutes later.
All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen had talked midweek about the need to adjust quickly to the pace of the game in the first 20 minutes but having competently navigated that period, New Zealand were then on the receiving end of a mini onslaught.
A rifled shot from Nigerian born Jaycee John bullet had Mark Paston momentarily worried until it sailed wide, and it sparked the Bahrainis into producing their most dangerous spell.
Sayed Mohamed would have scored if he had connected with a diving header from a 25th minute corner, while Husail Ali Ahmed hit the side netting only moments later.
The All Whites stood firm to regain parity and wouldíve been content to ramp up the pressure on the home side by taking them into halftime scoreless.
There were plenty of histrionics from the Bahrain players but they were largely dismissed by the Hungarian officials.
Bahrain came out of the tunnel fizzing but again the All Whites were equal the challenge and nine minute into the half a Rory Fallon header went narrowly wide.
Chris Wood and Michael McGlinchey were sent on in the second half in search of a vital away goal and Wood soon had the ball in the back of the net only to see the linesman flagged raised for offside.
Salman Isa Ali was perhaps lucky to survive a similar call for offside but his luck didnít hold after rounding Paston, hitting his shot onto the outside of the post.
New Zealand held their nerve in the dying minutes to close out the game and set up a dramatic climax to their World Cup campaign in what is now expected to be a full house in Wellington.
Nelsen salutes fans
Herbert: It's in our hands
2010 FIFA World Cup Intercontinental Playoff
Bahrain 0 New Zealand 0
New Zealand v Bahrain
8pm, November 14
Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Tickets from http://www.oneshotforglory.co.nz/ or 0800 TICKETEK
New Zealand: 1-Mark PASTON (GK), 4-Ben SIGMUND, 6-Ryan NELSEN (Captain), 5-Ivan VICELICH, 11-Leo BERTOS, 3-Tony LOCHHEAD, 8-Tim BROWN (12-Michael MCGLINCHEY 68), 7-Simon ELLIOTT, 9-Shane SMELTZ, 14-Rory FALLON (13-Chris WOOD 66), 10-Chris KILLEN.
Substitutes not used: 2-Aaron SCOTT, 15-David MULLIGAN, 16-Andrew BOYENS, 17-Andy BARRON, 18-James BANNATYNE (RGK).
Coach: Ricki Herbert
Cautions: Mark Paston, Ryan Nelsen
Bahrain: 1-Mohamed Jaffar, 5-Mohamed Ahmed Hubail, 6-Jayece John, 7-Sayed Mahmood Jala, 9-Husail Ali Ahmed, 10-Mohamed Ahmed Salmeen, 12-Faouzi Mubarak Aaish, 14-Salman Isa Ali (13-Mahmood Abdulrahman Mohamed 79), 15-Abdulla Ismaeel Omar,16-Sayed Mohamed Adnan, 17-Husain Ali Mohamed
Substitutes not used: 2-Mohamed Husain Mohamed, 3-Ahmed Hassan Rashed, 4-Abdulla Baba Fatadi, 8-Aala Ahmed Hubail, 11-Ismaeel Abdullatif Ismaeel, 18-Abbas Ahmed Ali
Coach: Milan Marcala.