Japan coach Takeshi Okada believes the return of his Europe-based players can help his side avenge a January loss to Bahrain when the two sides clash in a 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier on Saturday.
Japan lost 1-0 in the Gulf state in an AFC Asian Cup qualifier two months ago, but that was without the likes of Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura. "I'm sure that Bahrain are an offensive team against any teams," Okada told reporters. "But if we play our 100 per cent, I believe we can win."
Okada said he had a better squad with more talent available for the crunch home match which could boost their hopes of qualifying for South Africa 2010. "When we lost to them before, we didn't have the best players, so I don't feel those losses were bitter for us."
Unlike for that Asian Cup tussle in Manama, Okada has this time called up Nakamura, Daisuke Matsui of French club St Etienne, and Wolfsburg pair midfielder Makoto Hasebe and striker Yoshito Okubo. They join Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo, who is arguably the pick of Japan's home-based players, while first-choice keeper Seigo Narazaki returns after undergoing an operation on his right ankle.
The Blue Samurai already trail Australia by two points after four games in Asian qualifying Group 1. Bahrain and Qatar have four points and Uzbekistan one point.
Having drawn their last two home games, including 0-0 against Australia in February, Okada was in no doubt about the importance of winning this time. "This is the fifth game of the final round. Every game is important for us, but this is a home game against Bahrain. We must have the game in our hands," he said. "Our points standing may not be bad, but we really want to win this home game."
The top two teams from the two Asian groups qualify for South Africa 2010, while the third-placed teams will play-off against each other for the right to take on Oceania zone victors New Zealand for a berth in South Africa. While Japan may be focusing purely on the Bahrain game, the Gulf side face Qatar at home four days later.
Bahrain coach Milan Macala said it would be a "huge strain physically and mentally to travel between Japan and West Asia in a short period." The Czech coach insisted that the pressure was on Japan as "it is almost a must-win for them."
"The group is still quite open," Macala added. "It will be a hard game for us too as Japan, playing at home, will go all out and give their all to win. At least on paper, each team has a chance with possibilities, including even Qatar and bottom-placed Uzbekistan," Macala said. "The remaining matches are largely unpredictable. Anything can happen."