SYDNEY (AFP) - Under-strength Australia need courage and fight to beat Japan and keep their hopes of automatically qualifying for the Qatar World Cup alive, assistant coach Rene Meulensteen said on Wednesday (March 23).
The Socceroos face a must-win clash in Sydney on Thursday but the odds are stacked against them after a disastrous build-up.
Coach Graham Arnold tested positive for Covid-19 and was then slapped with a heavy fine for breaching his self-isolation.
He will be back on the sidelines as long as he returns a negative test before kick-off, but his squad is missing a string of players due to coronavirus impacts or injury, including influential duo Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic.
Former Manchester United assistant Meulensteen admitted he had never experienced such disrupted preparation, but said Australia would handle it.
"Obviously unfortunate that Aaron and Tommy are not part of the squad but we have enough depth and I know the players will step up to the plate," he said.
"Two good qualities of the Socceroos is the ability to fight but also play a really good game. We need to make sure we get the plan tactically right, have good focus and great concentration.
"But more than anything I think courage will win us the game - the courage of the players to do the right thing, to show their talents, which will cause a lot of problems for the Japan team."
There is plenty at stake. Saudi Arabia sit top on 19 points in Asian qualifying group B, one clear of Japan and four ahead of Australia with two games each remaining.
A win on Thursday for four-time Asian champions Japan would book their place at a seventh straight World Cup, while victory for Australia would move them level on points heading into a final group match on March 29.
Japan will be home to bottom side Vietnam in their last fixture while Australia travel to Jeddah and face the Saudis.
Regardless of the results, Australia are guaranteed to finish at least third and move to a play-off against the third-placed team in Asian Group A. The winner of that faces a team from South America for a place in Qatar.
Japan head into Sydney's game with a clear edge. Australia's last win over them was in 2009 and Hajime Moriyasu's men claimed a crucial 2-1 victory when they last met in October.
The visitors have been boosted by the return of captain Maya Yoshida to headline a strong team including Liverpool star Takumi Minamino.
Moriyasu said Japan had no injury worries and also evoked courage as crucial to winning.
"Not only do we have to be better in tactical ways, technically and mentally, we have to have the courage to battle our way through to get the victory," he said through a translator. "We have to have more willingness to win than Australia."
Moriyasu added that making the World Cup was "vital".
"The World Cup is a dream not only for the team but the people in Japan," he said.
Elsewhere in Group B, China host Saudi Arabia in the UAE while Vietnam play Oman.