BAHRAIN head coach Helio Sousa is preparing to face a reinforced Iraq when they meet next week in their opening joint-qualifying match for the Fifa World Cup 2022 and the AFC Asian Cup 2023.
The Bahrainis are scheduled to host their Iraqi counterparts on Thursday at the National Stadium in Riffa. They kicked off their training programme for the contest on Wednesday night at the Bahrain Football Association pitches.
Sousa cautions that the Iraqis will be a totally different and even stronger squad than the one Bahrain defeated earlier this month, in claiming their historic first-ever West Asian Football Federation title, and Bahrain must be ready to meet the challenge.
“Iraq are one of the top teams in our qualifying group; we won against them in West Asia but now it is a totally different contest now,” Sousa tells the GDN.
“They will be bringing nine different players that were not in West Asia while we are almost keeping the same team.
“Many of their players have big experience in professional championships and that is another point of strength for Iraq. They come here looking to defeat us. They will be much more aware of our team and of what we can do, and they will do what they can to beat us here.
“But we must do our best, beginning with the way we want to train, because all our games will be very hard.”
Sousa stresses the importance of getting their qualifying campaign off to a good start. He knows that the national team will have to play consistently at a high level if they hope to advance from their highly competitive qualifying group – one that also includes Iran, Cambodia and Hong Kong.
“Now, we are playing for points; playing for qualification,” Sousa says. “In the end of the eight games, the team that will be more consistent will be in the front fighting for first place or to be one of the best teams in second position.
“It is a totally different scenario for this game against Iraq and the qualifying games after that. We must keep building each game.”
Sousa notes that he is pleased with how Bahrain’s internationals have been responding to their training programme since he took over as coach at the end of June.
“The work we started to do has been very useful,” he explained. “Our training camps in July in Bahrain and then in Portugal were very useful when we went to the West Asian tournament. We started to build our strength and see our capacity.
“There are still many things we want to do much better and we will have some difficulty to put it in, but it is the beginning of a different process. We are just starting and already the results we have had have been amazing. The response of the players and their compromise with training were very good.
“Now we have to put our feet on the ground, continue to work with quality, and know the way we want to keep training. We must be in each game always fighting for the win.”
Sousa believes that building a strong team identity will be crucial to Bahrain’s future success, and is delighted to see that it is gradually coming.
“Our way of play must be consistent and it must be natural during the game,” he says. “The mentality we are trying to put is that we can win any game that we are going to play; we can have that capacity and we must show it in the game.
“Maybe we will not win all the time, but we must have our chances. We must be able to change the game and be with a positive attitude.
“These are the kinds of changes we are doing. West Asia was our first opportunity to pass this on to the players, and now we have to keep growing.”
Sousa calls on Bahrain’s football fans to come and support the team in their opening qualifier against Iraq next week.
“We have to take advantage of this game and I hope that the Bahraini people will be in the stadium and help us deliver and gain the best result we want,” he says. “For sure, we will fight for the win.”
Sousa has named a 29-player squad in preparation for their upcoming qualifiers. Following their match with Iraq, they must switch their focus immediately to Cambodia, as they travel to Phnom Penh for an away qualifier on September 10.
The nationals then play on October 15 at home against Iran before travelling to Hong Kong to play on November 14. They then go to Iraq for another qualifier on November 19, which will be their last game for the calendar year.
The nationals resume their campaign on March 26 at home against Cambodia, and then play Iran away in their penultimate qualifier on June 4. Bahrain wrap up this stage at home with a match against Hong Kong on June 9.
At the end of this phase, the eight group winners and the four best runners-up advance to the third round of Fifa World Cup qualifying, and also book their berths in the AFC Asian Cup 2023. The next best 24 teams will compete in a separate competition for the remaining 12 slots in the Asian Cup.