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    Articles related to CONCACAF 2006 WC qualifiers:

    Preview Feb 18, 2004
    Update Mar 4, 2004
    Wrap-up Apr 12, 2004
    Preview May 30, 2004 Wrap-up Jul 2, 2004 Preview Aug 9, 2004 Update Sep 20, 2004 Update Oct 26, 2004 Wrap-up Nov 30, 2004 Preview Feb 2, 2005 Update Feb 26, 2005 Update Apr 8, 2005 Update Jun 8, 2005 Update Aug 22, 2005 Update Sep 14, 2005 Wrap-up Oct 19, 2005 Preview Oct 29, 2005 Wrap-up Nov 19, 2005

     

     



    Wrap-up: CONCACAF v Asia play-off



    by Peter Goldstein


        Trinidad & Tobago vs. Bahrain, the working stiffís playoff. No galacticos like Raul; no top-line strikers like John Carew or Mark Viduka. OK, there was Dwight Yorke, but this was the Social Security version, the old man ending his career on the other side of the earth. No, this was a bunch of guys few had heard of, from countries few knew much about. But a very first World Cup berth was only 180 minutes away, and to the players, and to their fans, it might as well have been Brazil-Germany, with just as much to talk about, care about, and live for, as any game in the history of football.

        For the opener in Port-of-Spain, the first question was whether Bahrain star striker Alaía Hubail, just back after a long injury layoff, would start. The answer was no--instead the choice was Husain Ali, hardworking, but not in Hubailís class. The second question was exactly how conservative a conservative Bahrain would play it. The answer was very--coach Luka Peruzovic went with a 3-6-1, with two lines of 3 in midfield. With T&T starting their usual 4-5-1, space would be very difficult to find.

        And that led to the third question: would Bahrainís quickness and pace be too much for T&T? The answer was most definitely yes. In only the second minute Kelvin Jack had to come out to get the ball ahead of a racing Talal Yusuf. The swarming Bahraini midfield simply shut off the T&T attack. Dwight Yorke was forced too deep, and Russell Latapy, roving all over the field, found no space to dribble. The high ball proved useless, with Sayed Mohamed Adnan holding Stern John in check. Husain Ali Baba got in the way of any pass near the area. Aurtis Whitley was energetic in the middle, and Carlos Edwards found a bit of space on the right, but the team couldnít string enough passes together.

        Meanwhile Bahrain was dangerous on the counter, with a superb Mohammed Salmeen providing incisive passes to Ali and speedy left winger Salman Isa. In the 15th minute Isa actually got the ball in the net, but was just barely offside. And as the Bahrainis gradually found their rhythm, they started to dominate. In the 21st minute another pass from Salmeen nearly sent Isa through, and only a desperation tackle by Marvin Andrews kept him away. In the 24th minute Salmeen found Ali alone in the area, and he should have scored, but from fifteen yards he shot wide. T&T was retreating on all fronts, second best in every way, looking nothing like the team that had closed so strongly in the Hexagonal.

        But the absence of Hubail told at the finish. Ali not only missed his one great chance, he lacked the vision to provide the crucial pass, and the attack slowed or died when the ball reached his feet. Inevitably the spurt had to give out, and when it did, T&T nearly finished the half on top. In the 40th minute Chris Birchall crossed for Dennis Lawrence, and his header was barely denied by Ali Hassan. In stoppage time fullback Silvio Spann got up on the right, and crossed to Stern John at the far post. He headed down for Yorke, at last up in attack--but Adnan was there to block the shot.

        To start the second half Beenhakker shifted Yorke out of the midfield and into a strikerís role to bolster the attack. It made sense, but without him they didnít have the glue to hold the midfield together. Whitley, despite some fine individual plays, couldnít pull the strings. Latapy was still shackled, and was eventually replaced by the more direct Jason Scotland, who managed a couple of runs but couldnít get a shot on target. In fact, the only danger came when Yorke dropped a bit deeper to set up play. In the 68th minute came the best combination of the night, an excellent double one-two between Yorke and John, but Johnís shot from the top of the area went straight to the keeper.

        Meanwhile, Bahrain had become even more conservative, holding back on the counter, not releasing the wings quite as often. Hubail had come on at halftime to replace the ineffective Ali, but they couldnít spring him loose. In the 61st minute Isa took one more fine pass from Salmeen, and forced Kelvin Jack to save for a corner, but that was all. Nil-nil was looking more and more inevitable.

        But what happened on that corner was an omen. Bahrain played it short, a cross led to a melee, and Hubail got a free shot a few yards out, offside as it happened. But crucially, on a set piece, Bahrani quickness had trumped T&T height. In the 69th, another Bahrain corner was cleared, but Adnan headed back in and Isaís snap shot went just high. And in the 72nd there was no escape. Another short corner led to a cross, and Isa, the quickest man on the field, was left unmarked by Dennis Lawrence, the tallest. He headed in, and Bahrain were ahead.

        The road goal was a shocker, and T&T were in trouble. With the attack disorganized, where would an equalizer come from? Enter Chris Birchall. Heís not your usual hero: a box-to-box midfielder with decent technique and high workrate, the sort of guy who does his job but doesnít get noticed. The only reason he stands out for T&T is because heís white. But he has one special skill: a devastating rising shot from about 20-25 yards out. All the way back in the 7th minute he had a chance to let loose, but for some reason shot low instead of high, and Hassan saved nicely. Now, in the 77th minute, he got a second chance. Spannís cross ricocheted off Rasheed Abdul Rahman, and bounced up perfectly, 25 yards from goal. And Birchall went back to basics: a tremendous high scorcher that left the keeper no chance.

        Now all the momentum was with T&T, but Bahrain was still comfortable on defense, and the combinations wouldnít come. Yorke made a couple of neat moves, but couldnít deliver the killer pass; a cross from Spann bounced a little too high for John; in the 86th minute they got the closest, when substitute Kenwyne Jones forced his way through on the right and his low cross was just out of Yorkeís reach. The game finished quietly at 1:1.

        Bahrain had earned the result, and best of all, the draw plus the road goal meant they could use the same approach in the second leg. Nil-nil, and theyíd be home. But there was one very important negative: in the 66th minute, Mohamed Salmeen had clattered a bit too hard into Aurtis Whitley, and had been shown the yellow card. It was his second of the qualifiers, and so the teamís only playmaker, the man who made the counterattack go, would miss the return match in Manama.

        Peruzovic responded by replacing him with Alaía Hubail--not as a striker, but as a midfielder. He kept Ali up front and simply slotted Hubail into Salmeenís spot. It was a strange decision; Hubail is a scorer, not a playmaker, and although a quick and clever dribbler, isnít the sort to run the counterattack. But Peruzovic obviously wanted to stick with the 3-6-1. There really was no substitute for Salmeen, and he may have wanted an extra scorer just in case a goal was necessary.

        A goal was definitely necessary for Trinidad & Tobago, and Leo Beenhakker had to figure out how to get it. Cyd Gray replaced Silvio Spann at right back, but that was a defensive upgrade. Somehow he had to find a way to get the ball to the strikers. Want to know how great coaches earn their money? They bench the teamís most valuable player. Russell Latapy, the man most responsible for the final push that put T&T in the playoff, was replaced by Kenwyne Jones. For all his skill and flair, Latapyís slow, indirect style was fruitless against the quicker Bahrainis. But Jones was another matter: a big, physical striker who could use his muscle to get possession. He might also take advantage of Bahrainís weakened back line, in which suspended Abdullah Al Marzooqi had to be replaced by the smaller and less talented Mohamed Basheer Jumaía. So an extra big man it was, a straight 4-4-2, with an emphasis on the long ball, relying on the strikers to get possession and the midfielders to come rushing up in support.

        The game started brightly, with T&T on the attack. Beenhakkerís tactics were looking good: John and Jones were winning the ball back to goal, and Yorke was showing energy in midfield. Bahrain tried to counter, but could only manage the long ball. A tiny moment in the fourth minute showed how things had changed from the first leg. Husain Ali Baba got to a T&T throw-in and sent it to Hubail back to goal in the middle of the pitch. Salmeen would have held the ball up, turned and looked for an outlet; Hubail instead tried to dribble, and was muscled off the ball by Aurtis Whitley. It showed that 1) Bahrain didnít have the same counterattacking potential; 2) T&T were ready to use their physical superiority to good advantage.

        But that didnít mean T&T were without worries. In the seventh minute Sayed Mohamed Adnan spotted Kelvin Jack off his line and lofted one from the center stripe. Jack should have dealt with it easily, but in the first of many amusing moments, somehow muffed it for a corner. And, as in Port-of-Spain, that meant trouble. Jumaía got free near the penalty spot and headed forward; a pinball sequence found Hubail with the ball six yards away, and only a sliding block by Avery John saved a goal.

        So the best bet was to keep going forward. In the 13th minute Yorke fed Chris Birchall in his favorite spot and he wound up for another blast. But Sayed Jalal got there first, and the hard tackle not only deflected the shot, but put Birchall out of the game. In came Spann; he had disappointed at right back in the first leg, but now he was in his natural position, defensive midfield. If the team had lost shooting power, it had gained pace and aggressiveness.

        For the rest of the half T&T followed the script: balls over the top to the strikers back to goal, with midfielders moving up to take the leavings. As anticipated, Jumaía was a weak point, and John and Jones were getting possession and distributing effectively. As an added bonus, round about the 20th minute, Bahrain stopped even thinking about the counter and set in to defend. For the most part they did so effectively, but how long they could withstand the pressure? In the 23rd minute Jones got free at the top of the area and Baba had to slide to block the shot. In the 32nd minute a deep cross from Marvin Andrews was flicked on neatly by Jones to John, and only a superb charge out by Hassan denied him.

        But letís not forget about Kelvin Jack, who apparently was trying out for the Ringling Brothers. In the 41st minute Adnan floated a mile-high, harmless ball from deep. Jack came out, waited, leapt--and missed it entirely. He was five minutes away by phone. As millions laughed, a last-ditch clearance over the bar by Marvin Andrews prevented a goal.

        At halftime the score was still 0:0, but it was T&Tís game for the taking. Of course, Bahrain could keep on sending 50-yarders to Jack just to see what would happen, but in fact they werenít trying to score. Except three minutes into the second half they almost did. In their one and only effective counterattack of the night, Talal Yusuf fed Husain Ali back to goal, who turned and whipped the return pass to Yusuf along the right. He crossed low for Hubailís brother, Mohamed, but the ball was just out of reach. Now that was Bahrain football; a bit more and theyíd be in the saddle again.

        But they never got the chance. A minute later T&Tís power finally told. With Bahrain up to continue the attack, Yorke got the ball and turned upfield. He beat one man, then sent it low for Jones on a slanting run in the area. Baba came over to defend, but Jones used his bulk to drive him away and force a corner. And now it was time for The Revenge Of The Big Guy. In the first leg, Hassan had misjudged a couple of high balls, but T&T hadnít taken advantage. Here in the first half, he had come out wrong on a free kick, but once more the ball had been cleared. Now Yorke swung in the corner, and Hassan came out wrong again. And finally there was Dennis Lawrence, six feet seven, the man who had failed to mark on the goal in Port-of-Spain, to head powerfully down. Jalal was in position on the line to block, but the ball was hit too hard, and went through his legs.

        And now at last Bahrain were forced to attack. The shock of the goal obviously unsettled them; a moment later John almost got the clincher, but his hard shot went right at Hassan. For the next few minutes T&T were in complete control, with Yorke, Jones, and John swarming around the penalty area, and Bahrain helpless to maintain possession. It looked like it might be over quickly.

        But soon T&T fell back, and it was up to Bahrain to put together an attacking move. They couldnít do it. There were aimless long balls and crosses, with Jalal a particular offender. Passes went awry, communications broke down. T&Tís defense wasnít flawless--some clearances were weak, and there were too many fouls near the area--but they were clogging the lanes, intercepting passes, still using their muscle. Spann was a particular standout, consistently winning back possession and forcing the counter. Bahrain created only one real chance. In the 60th minute Salman Isa slipped inside two defenders, and got his head to a long ball; he flicked it to Alaía Hubail, finally in position to score--but from six yards out he stabbed wide. The only other time they got close was on a cross from Yusuf, which Lawrence, attempting to clear, almost steered into his own net.

        In the 78th minute Beenhakker made the logical switch, Latapy for Jones. Now he needed possession, experience, technique. He almost got a goal, too, because a minute later, with a free shot, Latapy hit the crossbar. But it didnít matter, because the game was all but over. Bahrain were void of ideas, winded, and beaten. T&T had most of the possession. The final score was clear for all to see. The clock ticked inevitably down--to one of the strangest finishes in qualifying history.

        First, in the 89th minute, Yorke decided to waste some time. He took the ball toward the left corner, and adroitly knocked it off a defender for a corner kick. With Latapy helping out, he repeated the trick. The Bahrain players, understandably frustrated, crowded them at the flag, which only wasted more time, as Latapy and Yorke appealed for the requisite distance. After the third corner, Yusuf came flying out of nowhere with a two-footed lunge that did nothing but send the ball out for yet another corner, and ratchet up the tension. A minor pushing war broke out, and referee Oscar Ruiz had little idea how to control it. Bottles and water bags rained down from the fans, targeting the T&T players in the corner.

        Now we were in stoppage time. Eventually the teams were separated, and Latapy took another short corner to Yorke. He decided to deal out some punishment, and whacked the ball low at Baba, presumably hoping for a bruise to two, plus another corner. But Baba had stepped out of the way, and all Yorke had done was give Bahrain a goal kick, and another chance.

        So Hassan sent the goal kick short to Baba, and he drove the ball the length of the field, over everybody. But that meant to Kelvin Jack, who came out a little bit late, and a little bit clumsily, collecting just barely ahead of Ali. He got up, prepared to kick it long, and with his mind on--well, who knew what it was on--didnít see Ali lurking just to his right. He released the ball for the punt, and as neat as you please, without touching the keeper, Ali stuck in a leg, knocked it clear, and put it in the empty net. Equalizer!! But the whistle blew. Ruiz disallowed the goal.

        Pandemonium. Ruiz was engulfed in an outraged river of red, bumped from behind by Baba, pushed from the front by Jalal, retreating thirty yards as the surge drove him on. Bahrain were sure the goal was legal, and Iíll bet a lot of armchair referees, and not only in Manama, agreed with them. I admit I wasnít sure at the time. But in fact Law 12 and accompanying Q&A 19 are very explicit: you canít interfere with the keeper in the process of the kick. Ruiz had made the right call, and bravo to him.

        Of course, that doesnít help much when youíre about to be dismembered. But eventually Bahrainís coaching staff convinced the team that rioting wasnít the best option. Baba was sent off, and we settled down to two more minutes of stoppage time. The ball bounced around for a while with nothing happening, until with only a few seconds left, Hubail won a corner. One last chance. Yusuf sent it into the area; in the scramble it hit one head, then another, and rolled out toward the top of the arc. And then came the most astonishing moment of all. Husain Ali, after more than 180 minutes of ineffectiveness, spun and drove a wicked left-footed shot at goal. It deflected ever-so-slightly off the head of sub Ian Cox, and headed straight for the top corner. And Mr. Comedy, Kelvin Jack, with approximately three milliseconds to react, produced an unbelievable save, a save for every World Cup qualifying highlight reel for the next 100 years, leaping to his left and tipping the ball over with his right. T&T were in.

        The fans, furious at the officiating, threw seat cushions onto the field for several minutes after the final whistle. But if they wanted to complain, they should have started with the team. In fact Bahrain had done very little to deserve a berth at the World Cup. Except for those fine 20 minutes at Port-of-Spain, they were remorselessly negative, proud to play for the scoreless draw. Peruzovic deserves most of the blame. In his zeal to line up as many midfield players as possible, he wasted whatever attacking potential the team had. Yusuf, an outstanding dribbler and shooter who plays best as a withdrawn forward, was stranded out on the right wing. In the home leg, Hubail was put in the midfield instead of up front where he belonged. Yes, they were unfortunate to be without Mohammed Salmeen for the return match, but sometimes you have to play shorthanded. What counts is how you approach the game. In Port-of-Spain they were worth their point, but in Manama, with all the natural advantages, they had nothing to show. In the end they were beaten by the better team.

        As for Trinidad & Tobago, well, youíve probably heard the story of 1989, how they were beaten out by the USA at home on the final day. For 16 years itís been the defining memory of T&T football. But now thereís another: a courageous victory under hostile conditions, to which every member of the team contributed, with a superb set of tactics by a top-class coach, and a magnificent last-second save. Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy were on the pitch for the 1989 match, so maybe the World Cup berth means the most to them. But letís give our last salute to the fans, the people for whom, after all, the game is really played. They cried, they stayed loyal, they waited, they hoped, and they were rewarded. May it happen so for every country in the world.



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