On November 12 Saudi Arabia beat Qatar 1-0 to take top spot of Asia's group A and thus relegated Iran to second place which meant Iran would face Japan in Johor Baru, Malaysia, on November 16 for the right to progress to the World Cup directly. The loser would face Australia on the 22nd and 29th.
As it turns out a spectacular headed own goal by an Iranian defender was ruled out because a Japanese player had strayed offside but Japan ended up leading 1-0 at halftime but fell back to 1-2 down before a glancing header equalised the scores and Iran wilted badly during sudden death extra time and almost-but-not-quite held out for penalties before surrendering the automatic qualifying spot on offer when a long range shot was parried into the path of a player whose name escapes me but who, no doubt, any Japanese could name without a second thought. The 'golden goal' meant Australia would travel to Tehran to try to qualify for the last place on offer to participants for France'98.
The Australians opted to base themselves in Dubai for the few days they had to prepare for the match, the decision on whether to travel to Tehran on matchday or the previous night left to Terry Venables better judgement. It ended up coming down in favour of spending the night in Tehran and so it was that the all male (apparently one female backpacker was snuck into the stadium by the press corps and David Hill's partner was allowed in through official means) 128,000 strong crowd made the Australians visit one to remember. Even on the telecast the cacophony of sound was unrelenting with the one, brief, notable exception of when Australia scored.
The game started with four players on Irans side who would ordinarily be suspended starting the game thanks to a FIFA ruling. Apart from the very significant absence of Karim Bagheri, whose 2 match suspension due to a red card against Qatar was the only one upheld, Iran were at full strength. Australia were suffering from some injuries, notably to Paul Okon, but more tellingly a severe lack of match fitness. They last played against Tunisia almost 2 months ago. Iran have had as many matches in the past 2 months as Australia all year, well almost.
The pitch was bumpy, which made some bounces difficult to handle and one suspects both sides would look a lot better on a smooth pitch. However you make do with what you're given and right from the kickoff Iran were pressing the issue regardless.
Young Harry Kewell, despite his claims to Harry Cool, was soon getting the attention of the referee and had to be kept calm by Aurelio Vidmar. Generally the game started with Iran looking sharper but Australia not seriously troubled, at least not early in the game. Australia got a shot on goal first from a free kick taken by Zelic, but anyone who knows about Australia and free kicks will know that these pose no danger to the opposition.
Much better was the chance soon after when a Zelic pass set Australia on its way down the left flank and the cross was met by Mark Viduka. Sadly, for Australia at least, the header went straight at the keeper Abedzadeh who was almost too surprised to hold it. Yet hold it he did.
Iran were first to get a corner and seemed intent on taking it, and subsequent corners, short. Australia dealt well with these tactics. Another noteworthy point was the speed at which the ballboys managed to get the ball back to the players. This was true for both teams so I doubt it was designed to give an advantage either way, just interesting to see the keenness (I'm sre that's not a real word) of the play to be continuous.
Australia again managed a free kick in goal-range within the first 15 minutes and this time Viduka took the shot. Of course nothing came of this either however the theory behind the shot was to curve it aroundthe wall and send the ball insidethe keepers near post. The ball, instead, struck the last man in the wall and a hurried followup went harmlessly out of the way for a goal kick. By this stage Australia were having slightly the better of the match.
Iran, through Sharoudi, and Australia via Foster traded some long shots at goal which caused more excitement among the crowd and commentators than they warranted. Then while the director was busy showing shots of the coaches Harry Kewell gave Australia the start they had craved. Mark Viduka received a long ball and with his back to goal volleyed the ball overthe defence and into the path of Harry Kewell. The latter had 3 defenders converge upon him but managed to control the ball with his right and immediately shoot with his left from near the corner of the 6-yard-box past the keeper and into goal. The silence, as they say, was deafening. With not yet 20 minutes gone it was going to be a long way home too but nevertheless it was a major achievement to go ahead of Iran at home.
Iran, knowing now that it must attack to get something from the game went about their task with renewed vigour and the game had barely been restarted when Tony Vidmar hacked down an Iranian player who had to be stretchered off the field and later returned. I failed to get his name. Tony got a yellow card for his troubles and this, if anything, worsened his performace.
Iran then started to control the play, getting into good positions and they eventually made Bosnich earn his money. Some progress down the left flank (again! - What is Vidmar doing?) by Azizi resulted in a ball to Daei who nipped in at the near post. The ball bounced up, over his shoulder and Daei executed an overhead kick dead on target which Bosnich managed to push away with cat-like reflexes.
Iran managed to hold possession for greater lengths of time than Australia and whether it was a stated aim or just the way it turned out the Socceroos were holding back in their own half. Azizi managed to get a rather weak shot on goal before Mahdavikia caused Bosnich far more trouble with a looping long range shot which had Bosnich scrambling back and barely tipping the ball onto the crossbar. An excellent save from an excellent shot. If only I didn't care about the match so I could enjoy the play a little more. The followup from the barely cleared corner was also just blocked by Moore before anything bad happened.
There was an offside decision against Iran and they decided to put the ball into goal anyway and perhaps it was good practice as only minutes later Mahdavikia eluded some markers in the penalty box and crossed the ball low to Azizi who glanced tha ball just inside the far post to bring Iran back onto level terms. The crowd seemed pretty damn pleased with these developments also.
If Iran were surging before they were on a mission now. Even the defender Khakpour was taking a pot shot at goal. Apparently Khakpour wasn't getting along too well with Harry Kewell either and into first half injury time the referee had had enough and decided to book both players, I do not know why exactly but I suspect it was an ongoing offence rather than just one incident.
A minute and a half into the second period and Bosnich was making goalstopping saves again. This time a quick corner was taken, catching the Australian defence unorganised, and Sharoudi whipped in a cross which Daei majestically rose above a pack of players for and hung in the air to head the ball just under the crossbar until Bosnich's hand dictated the ball go just over.
For a tall, lanky player Daei possesses some superb skills and as you would expect he is an excellent header of the ball. Infact the entire Iranian team showed so much more skill than they had against Japan it just wasn't funny. Some of the ball control on such a bumpy surface was quite sublime. Not that Australia were making themselves look foolish either, still I was impressed.
Alex Tobin was forced to foul Daei to stop one of his goalward runs and received only a yellow when the entire stadium was asking for a card of a different colour. Not entirely unjustified but then again this referee is no fool and wasn't about to have his mind made up by any crowd, not even this one.
Tony Vidmar on the other hand was going from bad to worse. One of Australia's few trips downfield resulted in a free kick which he then tried to launch into orbit. He missed the net by miles......literally.
It is odd then that when the changes were made it was Tony's brother and Robbie Slater who made way for Lazaridis and Tapai. Lazaridis replaced Tony Vidmar on the left and the latter moved right to where Slater had been. The change worked well with both substitutes bringing Australia's performace up a notch and strengthening claims for a first 11 spot.
Soon after Iran's first change of personnel Abedzadeh showed a hint of his reputation as he successfully outdribbled Mark Viduka. Tiny little flashbacks of Higuita v Milla raced through my mind but nothing like that eventuated here. On one hand some praise is due, on the other Viduka should have bundled the keeper over and put the ball in the net just to see if the ref decided to blow for the foul.
Australia had a few moments of threat, Viduka just caught offside, Lazaridis slicing through the defence, the odd free kick but not a single shot on goal in 30 minutes of the second half. Iran weren't exactly peppering the Australian goal with shots either, but they were pressing harder and that is why they managed to get into a position to appeal for a penalty with about 15 minuted left. Daei had fed the ball into space for Tahami to chase but Tobin slid in and cleaned out the ball as well as Tahami. The crowd all went up for the penalty but the Iranian players were not so vehement in their claims. I have seen spotkicks given for less but I can't say that it was a clear case for a penalty or not. All I know is none was given. While replays of that event still flooded my screen Abedzadeh and Viduka again battled for the ball outside the penalty area but this time some defenders came to the keepers aid to avoid any embarrassment.
A few minutes later Tahami went down outside the penalty area and the referee gave a free kick to Australia, presumably because Pairetto believed Tahami had dived. I wonder whether perhaps someone had pointed out players likely to do this to the referee. That or perhaps Tahami really sucks at taking a fall. One or two Australians had the "body-meets-earth" routine quite well rehearsed. You see what a bit of professional football can do for you?
Iran did eventually get that free kick within range and in setting up the wall Tapai was reticent to go to where the ref wanted him to, so another Yellow Card was shown, and Ali Daei came close to an on target shot, yet not close enough.
Just before the end of the game Graham Arnold replaced Kewell to soak up some time and while Moore and Horvat had both shown some injury problems they stayed on for the duration.
The match was tense to the end, but I suppose to a neutral observer it might have seemed more like it was petering out. Neither side had managed to really threaten the other in the last quarter of the game after Australia had resisted the early second half surge from Iran. This result sets up a finely balanced encounter in Melbourne in a weeks time. Asked what message Terry Venables had for the expected 5-10,000 Iranians at the MCG he replied "I hope they don't get any tickets".
Well I've got mine. I'll be there, good luck Australia. The return game will not be easy but Australia proved they can match Iran. A 0-0 will suffice for Australia but Iran, especially with Bagheri look perfectly capable of scoring which means Australia will require an outright win.