Rapid Reaction: Bahrain 0 : 1 Palestine (1st Leg Olympic Qualifier)
Starting XI (4-2-3-1): Toufic Ali (GK); Fayez Aslieh, Nadim Barghouthi, Mustafa Abu Kweik (c), Ahmad Salameh; Thaer Al-Bana (Abdelhamid Abuhabeeb 46'), Mahmoud "Al-Koori" Saleh; Hazem El-Reikhawy, Ahmed Mearry (Hicham Ali 75'), Ali El-Khatib (Alaa Attieh 88'); Khaled Salím.
Recap: This was a game that needed a goal to ignite the interest of a neutral observer. The first half was cagey with neither team carving out a real chance for itself. Ali El-Khatib put in a dangerous ball from a free kick on the right side of the field but it was punched away. Bahrain had the lion's share of possession but could not put together an attempt on goal to trouble the lanky Toufic Ali. As the first half progressed it became evident that Palestine's main objective was to frustrate their Bahraini counterparts. There were bursts of quality from the captain- Fahed Shuwaiter and Asian Cup veteran Rashed Al-Huwaiti but both players lacked the ability to put the finishing touch on good attacking moves. When it appeared they would catch Palestine off guard they were fouled, sometimes strategically but most times stupidly. The first half ended with yellow cards being dished out to Thaer Al-Bana, Nadim Barghouthi, and "Al-Koori".
It was a shock to see the most technically adept players- Abuhabeeb and Hicham Ali- on the bench to start this match. The Dinosaur rolled the dice with his squad selection and he also had to be considering the short turn around between the two games. It is hard to tell whether or not the yellow cards forced him into an early substitution but the game settled in the second half. Abuhabeeb picked his spots in midfield, adeptly kept possession, and drew fouls. His level-headed demeanor was needed as Bahrain came out with more vigor in the second interval. One of his first touches found a streaking Hazem "Lazarus" El-Reikhawy down the left wing, his open shot connected only with side netting but it was a ominous omen for Al-Ahmar.
Khaled Salím caught them on the corner in the 60th minute rampaging from midfield through the heart of the Bahraini defence. He was fouled at the top of the box but managed to slip a pass to a wide open Ahmed Mearry who should have done better. Bahrain also had a golden chance foiled when Toufic Ali saved a point blank header three minutes before Salím opened the scoring.
Toufic Ali had an answer for everything they threw at him, the Wadi Al-Nes shotstopper is a bit of an enigma: His weak frame make him susceptible to injury yet he throws himself into challenges, he's weak on crosses yet hasn't been made to pay for it in Olympic Qualifying, his distribution is poor, and he seems to be still learning the game as evidenced by his less than natural technique at times. Despite all this he's allowed a mere goal in 300 minutes of play. He made stops in the 70th and 86th minutes that were flat out incredible. This kid may not have much but he has an awesome set of reflexes.
Khaled Salím's goal was the result of a intelligent play from Abuhabeeb who always seems to figure out a way to put his fingerprints on a game. Given time and space he found the open Ahmed Salameh who sent a looping ball into the box where Salím was lurking alongside two defenders. Salím maneuvered past one and outfought the other. The header was beautiful, and justified Talili's decision to play him alone up front. If you haven't seen him play he is very similar to Emmanuel Adebayor in both physique and style. The fact that he celebrated his goal by mimicking one of Manú's celebrations will only make that comparison all the more appropriate.
What it means: Palestine will progress to the group stages of Olympic Qualification (12 teams, three groups of four) with a draw in Al-Ram on Thursday.
Positives: Take a look at the way Palestine played in Bangkok four months ago and how they played today. This is far from being the finished product but they have improved so much in a short period of time. The strategy was the same but the execution tonight was more effective against a far better team. The players have shown themselves to be more than able to digest and implement tactics and change them if need be.
Negatives: The Bahraini keeper did really well to keep out Ali El-Khatib's pointblank header and Hicham Ali's powerful shot from 20 yards out. Palestine's lack of discipline was worrying there were four yellow cards handed out (Mearry, "Al-Koori", Barghouthi, and Al-Bana). Palestine will be losing the services of Abu Dan, Sadoody, El-Helu, and Attieh for the return leg as the Israeli government will not allow them entry into the West Bank.
Man of the Match: Khaled Salím was tireless up front. Scored the winner and set up Mearry (who missed in the 60th minute) and El-Khatib's saved header (spectacularly saved in the 75th minute).
What's Next: The return leg will be in Al-Ram Thursday June 23rd