Coach : Ali Daei
TEHRAN:Osama Al Harbi’s header three minutes from time saw Saudi Arabia come back from a goal down to hand Iran a 2-1 defeat at the Azadi Stadium and revitalise the nation’s hopes of appearing at a fifth straight World Cup finals.
The central defender rose highest to head home Abdoh Autef’s corner to silence the capacity crowd and earn the Saudis a much-needed win
Masoud Shojaei gave Iran the lead 12 minutes after the restart and it looked like the Osasuna midfielder had done enough to give his side the win and to all but end Saudi’s hopes of qualifying for South Africa.
But Naif Hazizi pulled his side level with just 11 minutes left in the game before Al Harbi’s late header sealed a remarkable comeback for the three-time Asian champions.
The win moved the Saudis into third place in Group B and onto seven points, one more than Iran with just three games remaining in the quest for places at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Veteran midfielder Mehdi Mahdavikia looked set to put Iran in front in the 27th minute when he received a perfectly weighted return pass from Javad Nekounam which split the Saudi defence, leaving Mahdavikia one-on-one with Waleed Abdullah, only for the visiting goalkeeper to push the ball to safety.
In the 33rd minute Masoud Shojaei’s shot from the edge of the area curled away from the target as the Iranians continued to control the game.
But the Saudis refused to be overawed either by the performance of their opponents or the vociferous home crowd and, with nine minutes left in the half, Hazizi’s header beat Seyed Rahmati, only for Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura to rule the effort out after Osama Hawsawi was adjudged to impeded Hadi Aghli.
The teams went in level at halftime but, just 12 minutes after the restart, Iran took the lead thanks to a fine strike from Shojaei, the Spain-based midfielder thumping his effort beyond Abdullah from the edge of the area.
The goal saw Iran sit back and, until the 79th minute, Ali Daei’s side looked good for the points.
The Saudis, though, refused to let their World Cup chances evaporate and it was fitting that the impressive Hazizi should pull his side level, side footing the ball home after a fine defence-splitting ball by Saleh Bashar.
Just as it appeared the honours would be shared, Saudi Arabia won a corner and, following Autef’s centre, Al Harbi met the ball with a glancing header that flew across the face of Rahmati’s goal and into the far corner.
Ali Daei has declared he has no intention of standing down from his post at the helm of the Iran national team despite his side’s 2-1 loss at home against Saudi Arabia in World Cup qualifying on Saturday evening.
Iran conceded two goals in the final 11 minutes of a thrilling encounter at the Azadi Stadium, with the result causing pandemonium among the capacity crowd, who called for Daei’s head after seeing his team squander a one-goal lead.
But despite the loss the former Bayern Munich and Hertha Berlin striker praised his team and stressed he would not be abandoning his position.
“I’m happy with the players’ performance and I’m not going to resign,” said Daei. “I believe the players played very well and I am proud of them now.
“We conceded those two goals because of our mistakes and I can understand how difficult it is for everybody, but what we have to do is try harder and claim as many points as we can in the forthcoming games.”
Masoud Shojaei gave the hosts the lead in the 57th minute with a fine strike from the edge of the penalty area, only for Naif Hazizi and Osama Al Harbi to score for the Saudis, who now climb above Iran into third place in the Group B standings.
With only three games remaining for both teams, the tension is increasing as the two nations trail group leaders DPR Korea and second-placed Korea Republic, who have played a game less than everyone else in the group.
The win was the first in a competitive game for new Saudi coach Jose Peseiro, who took over from Nasser Al Johar following the team’s loss to DPR Korea in Pyongyang in February.
And the Portguese coach was delighted with the response of his new team.
“That was a tough match,” he said. “Iran are a great team but we managed to win in a very special way.
“We didn’t start well and Iran dominated the game in the first quarter but gradually we got better and found a way to win.
“Both Iran and Saudi still have a chance to qualify so we need to concentrate on the games coming up.”