NORTH Korea inched closer to their first World Cup Finals since 1966 with a gritty 0-0 draw against Iran yesterday afternoon.
But it was not the result newly-appointed Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi 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.
South Korea took on United Arab Emirates in Dubai this morning.
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.
With the top two teams from the five-team group to qualify directly for South Africa 2010 and the third-placed team to go into a further play-off, Iran stay in fourth with seven points from six games.
Victory for North Korea would have secured at least a play-off spot, but they now must either win their final game away to Saudi Arabia on 17 Jun, or hope other results go their way.
Yesterday, Iran were the better team for the first half of an open and entertaining game, but struggled to find a way through the much-vaunted North Korean backline.
The hosts created better and more chances after the break.
Iran started positively and Osasuna midfielder Masoud Shojaei tested goalkeeper Ri Myung Guk after just four minutes, turning and hitting a first-time shot from close range that Ri just managed to get a hand to and turn on to the post.
Bochum striker Vahid Hashemian almost broke the deadlock five minutes before the break as Iran opened the hosts' defence with some slick football.
Eintracht Frankfurt winger Mehdi Mahdavikia played a one-two with Ali Karimi and burst into the right side of the box . His low cross was met by Hashemian whose first-time shot went just wide.
North Korea started the second half much better and after 46 minutes, Iran's goalkeeper Seyed Rahmati had to make his first serious save from a low Hong Yong Jo shot. Moments later, Jong Tae Se headed just wide.
Just after the hour, Rahmati saved again from a Hong free-kick as the hosts pushed for a vital win.
With minutes remaining, Park Nam Chol produced a fierce shot that was arrowing toward the top right corner, forcing a superb diving save by Rahmati.
In stoppage time, Hong had the best chance of the game.
With Rahmati advancing well out of his area to stifle a counter-attack, Hong just had to round the goalkeeper and have a shot at an open net from 30 metres.
He instead elected a first-time shot that was well off-target. -- Wire Services.
Group 2 remaining fixtures after this weekend
Iran v UAE
South Korea v Saudi Arabia
South Korea v Iran
Saudi Arabia v North Korea