Familiar rivals crossed paths in Asian Group 2, as Japan, Bahrain and Oman met for the second consecutive time in Asian qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™ finals. Japan, who kept an unblemished record against their two West Asian opponents en route to Germany 2006, justified their status as favourites by booking their place in the last ten with a game to spare. However, it was second-seeded Bahrain that stole the show; they remained on top until the last match, when they went down 1-0 to Japan.
Bahrain 1-0 Japan, Manama, 26 March
The second game at Manama's National Stadium was more than just a qualifier for the hosts. Bahrain had never defeated Japan in a major international competition, having lost the two sides' semi-final clash at the AFC Asian Cup 2004, before falling short again in their two meetings in Asia's final qualifying round for Germany 2006. Playing in front of a passionate crowd, coach Milan Macala's charges tasted their maiden success against the East Asians, A'ala Hubail heading them to a 1-0 win after 77 minutes, a result which put them top of the group, three points clear of Japan.
The critical match
Japan 3-0 Oman, Yokohama, 2 June
The 1-0 loss to Bahrain put Japan's campaign in jeopardy, and under-fire coach Takeshi Okada recalled midfield maestro Shunsuke Nakamura to bolster their attack ahead of their double-header against Oman. His faith in the Celtic playmaker was repaid immediately, as Nakamura spearheaded Japan's 3-0 victory, scoring one goal and creating another. After captain Yuji Nakazawa had headed Japan in front after ten minutes, Nakamura launched a lightning counterattack which saw Yoshito Okubo double the lead on 22 minutes. Nakamura sealed the crucial win by scoring himself four minutes into the second half.
The Star players
While Shunsuke Nakamura proved the influential figure for Japan, Bahrain also had a talisman in the shape of A'ala Hubail. Hubail, who finished joint top scorer with four goals alongside Iran's Ali Karimi in the 2004 Asian Cup, netted twice to secure Bahrain the opening two wins over Oman and Japan.
14 June was a memorable night for Bahrain, who secured progression with the necessary point against Oman in the penultimate match. But they were not alone in their celebrations: Japan, who had seen off Thailand in the other Matchday 5 encounter, also made sure of progression. Oman, despite their elimination, also had a fond memory to savour: Ismail Al Ajmi scored the quickest goal of the entire campaign when he netted the winner against Thailand after only ten seconds in Oman's second match.