Four years ago Bahrain came agonisingly close to a maiden appearance on the world stage at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™. But for a headed goal from Trinidad & Tobago's Dennis Lawrence, Bahrain would have featured at Germany 2006 as the fifth and final qualifying team from Asia. Now the Bahrainis, older and wiser for their experience last time around, are steeling themselves to progress one step further under experienced coach Milan Macala.
The tiny Gulf nation has again set its sights on an intercontinental play-off, this time against New Zealand, the winners of Oceania qualifying. And with the experience gained four years ago, Bahrain will be optimistic that history will not repeat itself this time. Though Australia and Japan are streaking away in Group A, Bahrain currently hold down the crucial play-off berth though they still have several significant challengers ahead of them if they are to reach South Africa 2010.
Bahrain must firstly see off the challenge of both Qatar and Uzbekistan for the group's third place, and then beat the third team from Group B in an Asian play-off, before they can challenge New Zealand.
Bahrain is currently sitting third in Group A with seven points from six games, leading Uzbekistan and Qatar by three points. While four points from the remaining two matches against Australia and Uzbekistan will seal third place regardless of results in other games, it is the match in Australia which is providing the most headaches for Macala.
"European leagues draw to their close late this month so by the time Australia hosts us on 10 June, they will have all their overseas-based stars available. They can call up a full-strength squad against us," Macala told FIFA.com.
The closing game against Uzbekistan could be decisive to both sides so it won't be easy,
Four days earlier Australia will meet Qatar in Doha, where a point will be enough for the Socceroos to become the first nation to seal qualification for South Africa 2010. This fact, however, is seen by the Czech tactician as something that makes their clash ‘tricky'.
"If Australia loses at Doha, they will go all out against us. But even if they qualify with points from the Qatar game and field a side consisting of entirely domestic players, it could still be hard for us, because their A-league has also produced high-quality players by Asian standards," said the 65-year-old veteran coach.
A week after the Australia encounter, Bahrain entertain Uzbekistan, a side who they defeated 1-0 away in the first match last year. "The closing game against Uzbekistan could be decisive to both sides so it won't be easy," he stressed. "Uzbekistan may have lost the first leg but they are still a tough side."
Asked about which side from another group Bahrain prefers to face in the play-off, Macala firmly shook his head. "We are only focusing on the next two matches and our strategy is one thing at a time. After securing the third place we can begin to think of the next play-off and if we advance, we will definitely do our best to progress to the World Cup finals."