Japan’s 2010 World Cup qualification hopes hit a snag on Wednesday as Bahrain grabbed a late goal to send Takeshi Okada’s men crashing to a 1-0 defeat in Manama.
A well-organized Bahrain team combined muscle and trickery to gain the upper hand throughout the match, and a 77th-minute mistake by Japan goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi handed the gulf side three points and control of the qualification group.
Japan drops to second in the Group 2 standings, level on points with Oman, which scored a 1-0 win over Thailand on Wednesday.
The two teams meet in Japan’s next match on June 2 in Yokohama — a game that now takes on real significance after the setback in Manama’s National Stadium.
Only two teams proceed to the final qualification stage, and Okada knows his team has blown a golden chance to book an early ticket.
“The worst-case scenario came to pass, and it’s very disappointing,” he said after the match. “When the match was 0-0 and it was getting closer to 90 minutes, I wanted to avoid the chance of any accidents happening. But we made too many mistakes and they scored.
“Now we have to try to beat them at home. The qualification process isn’t finished yet, and we still have time. I think we can do enough to get there.”
Aala Hubail made Okada’s task more difficult with a goal from a looping header after Kawaguchi flapped at Ismaeel Latif’s cross from the left.
“I knew they were trying to launch long balls and hit on the counter, but it was my mistake that gave away the goal,” the goalkeeper said.
“Individually they were very good and they had more spirit than we did. Now we have to go back to the J. League and try to put this behind us and get back into form.”
Okada’s starting lineup consisted entirely of home-based players, with Eintracht Frankfurt’s Junichi Inamoto withdrawing from the squad because of an injury and Celtic playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura busy with his club.
Striker Naohiro Takahara also sat out after picking up a late injury in training.
Japan started the match with a three-man defensive line, with the hulking Yuji Nakazawa flanked by Yuki Abe and Yasuyuki Konno — both converted midfielders — offering superior mobility offset by their limited physical presence.
The formation liberated fullbacks Yuichi Komano and Michihiro Yasuda to push forward, but while Yasuda caused problems for the Bahrain defense with his probing runs, he looked like the weak link in defense.
First Hubail stole in front of the 20-year-old for a free header, before Japan escaped a penalty claim when Abdulla Omar tangled with Yasuda after 37 minutes.
Kengo Nakamura and Koji Yamase strived to establish dominance in midfield, but Bahrain’s physical strength and individual skill made it hard for the pair to gain a foothold.
Things looked no better as the second half began, with Omar rattling the crossbar with a shot from the edge of the area as Bahrain turned up the heat on Japan’s beleaguered defense. Husain Mohammed flashed a drive past the post as a cacophony of pipes and drums from the crowd added to Japanese confusion, leading Okada to bring on Yasuhito Endo for Yamase in an attempt to hit back.
Abdulla Marzooq almost caught Kawaguchi napping with a lob in the 73rd minute, but four minutes later Hubail struck for real as the veteran goalkeeper rushed off his line.
Okada threw on attacker Keiji Tamada for Abe as Japan chased the game, but Bahrain’s patient defense, marshaled by the colossal Sayed Mohamed Adnan, mopped up the threat while launching counterattacks of its own.
Yoshito Okubo hit the net with 90 minutes on the clock, only to be ruled offside by the linesman, but Bahrain maintained its composure to see out the game and throw a wrench in the works of Japan’s bid for a fourth-successive appearance at the World Cup finals.
“I was expecting a tough game,” Okada said, “but I wanted the team to attack faster. We were too slow and it wasn’t until the end that we started to break through more decisively. It’s very disappointing.”