A first-up home victory against Japan on 6 September, in Asia's final qualifying round for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, is all that is occupying the thoughts of Bahrain coach Milan Macala at the moment.

In a sense, the opener against Japan is more than just a match for the Bahrainis, who have developed a familiar rivalry with the East Asians in recent years. The two sides first locked horns in the AFC Asian Cup semi-finals four years ago, where they played out a pulsating 3-3 draw over 90 minutes, before Keiji Tamada scored in extra time to send Japan through. They crossed swords again in the final qualifying round for Germany 2006, but Bahrain twice lost out by a solitary goal to the then Asian champions.

Bahrain's jinx against Japan was brought to an end when ace striker Ala'a Hubail headed them to a 1-0 win over the three-time Asian champions in Manama on 26 March in this year's third qualifying round, a result which helped smooth Bahrain's progression to the last ten.

While the first win came as a timely boost for Bahrain, it also marked the maiden victory against Japan for Macala. The Czech tactician was sacked as Saudi Arabia coach after their 4-1 demolition at the hands of a rampant Japan in the 2000 Asian Cup, before he lost three straight matches against the same rivals while in charge of Oman. It was no surprise, then, that the 64-year-old was the happiest man in Asia after the match.

"This was my fifth match against Japan, and today we finally beat them!" he beamed. "I can't tell you how glad I am."

Preparatory woes
That milestone victory and their progression into the last ten, however, represented only a job half done for Macala, who is targeting one of the two qualifying spots available in their qualifying section, which also features Australia, Qatar and Uzbekistan.

He embarked on a well-planned preparatory project in the latter half of July, including a two-week European training camp for his charges. "We are getting closer to the World Cup, but we can only make it through hard work," Macala remarked.

The build-up to their opening match didn't go as Macala had expected, with a host of his overseas-based stars not released by their clubs. As a result, Macala's under-strength team lost a series of friendlies against the likes of Czech club SK Sigma Olomouc (3-2), German Bundesliga giants Schalke 04 (4-1) and English Premier League outfit Stoke City (2-1).

The absence of the key players caused deep concerns for Macala, who was not at all satisfied with the preparation. "I am like a general with no soldiers," the burly Czech complained. "If our players are not 100% physically prepared, then we can't face a team like Japan."

Bahrain team administrator Hassan Khalfan has sounded a more positive note, downplaying the negatives and declaring that the Bahrainis can get past Japan this time around. "Things have been going very well, and all the players have gotten themselves ready. All our work is done for the Japan test."