SAITAMA — National team manager Takeshi Okada is determined to settle his side’s rivalry with Bahrain once and for all in Saturday’s World Cup qualifier at Saitama Stadium.
Japan has met the Gulf side four times over the past year, winning two and losing two including a 1-0 defeat last March that Okada described as “the most humiliating moment” of his career.
Japan avenged that loss with two wins in succession, but although Bahrain then took the honors in an Asian Cup qualifier earlier this year, it is Okada’s team that holds the aces in the hunt for a place at the World Cup.
Okada’s squad sits second in Group A, two points behind leader Australia but four ahead of Bahrain and Qatar, with Uzbekistan all but out of contention. The top two teams qualify automatically for South Africa, with the third-place side taking its chances in the playoffs.
A win for Japan would represent a giant step toward qualification, and Okada is eager to finally put Milan Macala’s side’s challenge to bed.
“This will be our fifth game against Bahrain in the last year or so, and we want to settle the matter,” Okada said. “We want to take the three points and move on.
“It’s a good situation to be in. If Bahrain lose here, then their chances of qualifying will take a real hit. We’re not going to play for a draw, and we’ll be fighting for the three points right until the end. We’ve got the courage to take risks, but we’re not going to do anything reckless.”
Okada looks set to field virtually the same team that drew 0-0 with Australia in Yokohama last month. Goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki returns from injury to replace Ryota Tsuzuki, while Daisuke Matsui is expected to keep his place on the left wing ahead of Wolfsburg’s Yoshito Okubo.
“We have been able to play our own game so far, and we want to continue being aggressive and working hard with everyone attacking and everyone defending,” Okada said.
“The players have a lot of motivation for this game, and they are in good shape. We are expecting a tough, hard game, so it is very important that we are first to the loose balls. That will be the key.
“We want to put on a united front. We’re at home and there will be a lot of fans in the stadium, so we want to celebrate along with them.”
Macala, meanwhile, is aware that Saturday’s match could make or break Bahrain’s World Cup chances, and knows his side’s previous triumphs over Japan will count for nothing when the game begins.
“When we beat Japan it was historic and we were very proud,” he said. “But now we start a new game and it is 0-0. Both sides will be trying to take three points from this very interesting game.
“It’s a very important game for both sides. . .”