Bahrain will be hoping to end 49 years of anguish as they aim for their first Arabian Gulf Cup title Sunday. Standing between them and a historic triumph is Saudi Arabia, the traditional powerhouse, who will be gunning for their fourth title at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium.
Undoubtedly Saudi, the three-time Gulf Cup champions, will start as favourites, but Bahrain are more than capable of pulling off an upset. The two teams clashed in the group stage, with Saudi walking away with a 2-0 victory. However, that would matter for little when the two teams kick off the final at 7pm.
For, Bahrain have bounced back spectacularly since losing to Saudi – their only loss in the tournament. They defeated Kuwait 4-2 in the final group game to seal their place in the semi-finals, where they knocked out Iraq on penalties.
Saudi, on the other hand, knows how to play in big matches. Herve Renard’s side edged past tournament favourites and Asian champions Qatar 1-0 in the semi-finals, despite a sustained pressure from the hosts for long period. In Frenchman Renard they have a serial winner, who in the past has led Zambia and Ivory Coast to Africa Cup of Nations glory.
After a 1-3 thrashing by Kuwait in their opening match, Renard has set-up his defence and it will be a tough test for Bahrain’s attack to penetrate into the box. Saudi will once again look for Abdullah al-Hamdan for goals. The 20-year-old striker has put on man of the match performances against Bahrain and Qatar so far, and will be the one to watch out for in the final.
Renard said Saudi, who will be looking for their first Gulf Cup title since 2003, will have to stay focused in the final.
“We have a strong team. And in the final, we need to play with humility. Since 2003 Saudi hasn’t won this competition, so the players want to make history. We just want to be ourselves. It will be completely different from the game we played against Bahrain in the group stage and we are ready," he said.
“We are very pleased to have qualified for the final. I think we deserve it. So we need to concentrate very hard. This is the most important match. The players are very motivated and their level is getting better in each match. We want to be the champions,” he added.
Renard indicated his team would not sit back and would play aggressively against Bahrain.
“I think against Bahrain and Oman we played good offensive football. The game against Qatar was completely different. When we are in a tournament we need to have a strategy. We love to play offensive football but it’s not possible all the time. Our captain was out. So it was difficult. We played with our heart. We played for the flag of our nation,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bahrain coach Helio Sousa has quietly rallied his side into the final, after at one point they looked to be out of contention. The Portuguese manager had earlier this year led them to West Asian Football Federation Championship title, and if he can mastermind Bahrain to their maiden Gulf Cup triumph Sunday, then he would attain legendary status in the country.
“We are focusing on ourselves,” said Sousa Saturday. “By entering the final, we have bettered ourselves. But this is not enough. We play every match to win it. We can’t be happier than being in the final of Gulf Cup. It’s our best performance. But we want to win it," he added
Sousa admitted his players would be under pressure to create history. “This is the biggest chapter for us. There is pressure, but this is the best pressure that can happen to us. We only have semi-professional championships in Bahrain. But we are winning against the best teams of Asia. The players are doing an amazing job. This is the pressure we want. To be here playing the fifth game. Against a top team,” he said.