Japan has been drawn alongside Bahrain, Oman and Thailand in its first group stage of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup finals.
The Japanese avoided the “group of death,” which includes Australia, China and Asian champion Iraq, when the draw was made in Durban, South Africa, late on Sunday evening.
Japan, favorites to finish top of the group, is scheduled to play its first qualifier in Group B on Feb. 6, 2008, with the first and second place in each of the five Asian groups progressing to a fourth and final round. The final round will divide the 10 qualified teams into two groups of five, with the first and second placed teams qualifying for South Africa. In Group C, South Korea, which reached the semifinals at the 2002 World Cup, was drawn alongside North Korea.
Japan national team coach Ivica Osim suffered a stroke Nov. 16 and a new coach is expected to take over from the stricken Bosnian before qualifying begins.
Former Yokohama F. Marinos boss Takeshi Okada, coach of the national team in its first appearance at the World Cup finals in 1998, and Gamba Osaka’s Akira Nishino have been strongly linked with the position. Urawa Reds have denied that coach Holger Osieck, who recently led the team to victory in the AFC Champions League final, had spoken to the Japan Football Association about taking over from Osim.
Japan last played Oman in October 2004 in the first round of qualifying for the 2006 finals, winning 1-0 in Muscat. In the final round of qualifying for that tournament, Japan traveled to Manama in June 2005 and won 1-0 against Bahrain in the most recent match between the two teams. Japan downed Thailand 4-1 during the Asian Cup finals in China in July 2004.