North Korea inched closer to their first World Cup finals since 1966 with a gritty 0-0 draw against Iran on Saturday.
But it was not the result newly appointed Iran coach Afshin Qotbi was looking for, with their World Cup fate now hanging in the balance.
The draw edged North Korea level with South Korea on 11 points in Group B, but they have played two games more. The South take on United Arab Emirates in Dubai later Saturday.
Saudi Arabia, who do not play Saturday, have 10 points with Iran languishing on seven points and facing a home game against UAE next Wednesday and then a tough trip to Seoul on June 17 — matches they must win.
Despite the draw North Korea, at the centre of international criticism after its second nuclear test, appeared disappointed after the game in front of a full house in Pyongyang, with players slumping to the ground in frustration.
But ultimately it moved them closer to ending their long wait for another crack at the World Cup.
It was a game of few chances with a scrappy first half largely forgettable
The Iranians controlled the tempo early on, with an effort from Vahid Hashemian just before the break the highlight.
The match livened up in the second period with the Koreans coming out firing, creating two clear opportunities in the first five minutes but Hong Yong-Jo and Pak Nam-Chol were both denied by goalkeeper Seyed Rahmati.
The Koreans were the more composed as they pressed forward against a ragged Iran, who badly missed the creative inspiration of suspended midfielder Javad Nekounam.
Iran’s best chance came when Ali Karimi played a return pass to Mehdi Mahdavikia, who took the ball to the right byline before squaring for Hashemian, whose volley flashed just wide of the target.
Rahmati was called into action again in the 64th minute when the North Koreans were awarded a free-kick 20 metres from goal and Hong fired in a low shot that was tipped around the upright by the Iran keeper.
They had another chance in the dying minutes when the Iranians were caught upfield following a corner as a long ball was played to Hong.
But with Rahmati well off his line, the striker put his effort well over the unguarded goal and the game fizzled out with the spoils shared.
Asia has four automatic qualifying berths in the World Cup, with the third-placed teams in Group A and Group B playing off against each other for the right to take on New Zealand for a place in the finals.
- Soccer News Like
- Be the first of your friends!