Bahrain are facing a pivotal phase of their 2010 FIFA World Cup™ campaign with a visit to Japan and a home match against Qatar looming on the horizon. Coach Milan Macala brings a wealth of international experience to his Bahrain side for their crucial match-up against Japan in matchday 5 of Asia's final round of qualifying for the South Africa 2010. With both teams keen to take one of the group's two automatic qualifying spots, it is a game neither side dare lose.
Bahrain may be underdogs against Japan but Macala has a long history of taking on the Japanese with a high level of of success, having crossed paths with the East Asians on nine occasions with four different national teams over a period of thirteen years. FIFA.com caught up with the 65-year-old Czech to talk about the previous meetings, the upcoming match against Japan, and Bahrain's qualifying prospects.
FIFA.com: Mr. Macala, firstly congratulations on your team's 1-0 win against Uzbekistan. After this result, how do you rate your chances of qualifying?
Milan Macala: The win was very important for us to get our campaign back on track. The result means we remain on the path towards qualifying for the World Cup. If we can maintain our winning run in the remaining four matches, we have a chance of winning one of the group's two automatic qualifying places. If we fail to achieve this, we will of course target the third-place playoff.
What is your assessment of your group?
Australia and Japan may be still leading the section as the current top two teams but the group it is still quite open. At least on paper, each team has a chance with possibilities to varying degrees, including even Qatar and bottom-placed Uzbekistan. It is a very interesting group and the remaining matches are largely unpredictable. Anything can happen. If Australia and Japan can continue their brilliant form then it is hard for us to overtake them for the two automatic qualifying spots but we will try our utmost to upset them.
Within a year you twice defeated Japan, one of the most familiar rivals for you.
We gained two wins over them but under difference circumstances. Last March we beat them in an important World Cup qualifier and it was a big morale booster for us. In this January's qualifying for the 2010 Asian Cup we came good against them again, a result which should provide our players with plenty of confidence for our next qualifier against Japan on 28 March.
Japan are a strong team with many experienced players and given their proud record at continental level, they should go into the rematch with a clear mental edge. It looks a very tough game for Bahrain?
But the pressure is on their side. Japan's goal is taking one of the two automatic qualifying spots but they are second placed in the group trailing behind Australia by two points. So it is almost a must-win for them. It will be a hard game for us too, as playing at home, Japan will go all out and give their all to win the game.
On a personal note you have played against Japan many times, but with a variety of different teams such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain.
I got two wins within a year against Japan with Bahrain but it was not the first occasion I had overcome them. In the 1996 Asian Cup I led Kuwait to a memorable 2-0 win against Japan in a quarter-final match. Japan peaked at the 2000 Asian Cup four years later when I coached Saudi Arabia and we lost to them. That was a very strong Japan team as they had world-class players like Hidetoshi Nakata who was in his prime.
What do you think of the current Japan team, if compared to that squad?
This Japan side are rather different from that one I saw nine years ago. There are new faces in the team and obviously they are nurturing a younger generation. But they are still a very competitive side in Asia. Furthermore, coach Takeshi Okada will have a handful of European based players at his disposal for this match and this will make our life harder.
So are you confident going into the match against Japan?
Even if we fail to get a satisfying result against Japan we are far from out of the race. The next game against Qatar four days later will become even more important. Our difficulties are that we will have to travel between Japan and West Asia in such a short period of time to play two crucial matches, which is a huge strain on the players both physically and mentally.