Bahrain – the small Arabic state in the middle of the Persian Gulf, is hardly a hotbed of world football.
With a population of around 1.2 million – almost half of whom are expatriate foreign workers – it’s a state that tends to fly under the radar for much of the western world.
However, Japan coach Takeshi Okada must be sick of the sight of the Bahraini national team, with the two teams set to face off for the umpteenth time in Japan’s quest to reach a fourth successive World Cup finals.
Okada came in for heavy criticism when Bahrain beat Japan 1-0 in an Asian Cup qualifier in Manama in January, and coupled with defeat at the same venue in an earlier round of World Cup qualifying, Japan’s recent record against Milan Macala’s team makes uncomfortable reading for Japanese fans.
Nevertheless the Blue Samurai will go into their Toto Hk crucial World Cup qualifier with Bahrain at Saitama Stadium on March 28 as hot favourites – not the least because Japan possess one of the most impressive home records of any team within the Asian Football Confederation.
Having recorded two wins and two draws in Group A qualifying so far, Japan can temporarily go top ahead of the midweek clash between group leaders Australia and Uzbekistan in Sydney on April 1.
Okada has made no major changes to his squad following Japan’s most recent scoreless draw with Australia in Yokohama, although veteran goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki returns from injury, while dynamic Oita Trinita midfielder Mu Kanazaki and experienced Albirex Niigata striker Kisho Yano have also earned call-ups.
Japan’s European contingent is lead by Shunsuke Nakamura of Celtic, while the likes of VfL Wolfsburg duo Makoto Hasebe and Yoshito Okubo and St. Etienne midfielder Daisuke Matsui have also been called up – although an injury to in-form Catania striker Takayuki Morimoto means the former Tokyo Verdy youngster was not considered.
With Japan lying four points ahead of third-placed Bahrain going into this clash, Takeshi Okada’s men are expected to cruise through as one of the top-two finishers to earn a place in South Africa in 2010.
But with Okada having claimed that Japan are strong enough to reach the semi-finals in South Africa, there is plenty of pressure on the Blue Samurai to excel during qualifying – something critics suggest they have so far failed to do.
Tickets for this clash have been sold-out for months, and roared on by a capacity crowd at Saitama Stadium, the hosts are expected to take all three points against a tenacious, albeit technically limited Bahrain side.
Whether they do so with style is the burning question on everyone’s lips.