Football: Under-fire Japan to bring courage against Asia's best, says coach Halilhodzic

MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic has shrugged off injury concerns ahead of Tuesday's 2018 World Cup football qualifier against Australia and defended his team's slow start to the final phase for Russia.

Japan opened their campaign with a surprise home loss to United Arab Emirates and their last-gasp win over Iraq in Saitama on Thursday did little to ease the pressure on the 63-year-old Bosnian, who has endured heavy criticism from a disgruntled home media.

Having already lost forward Yoshinori Muto and attacking midfielder Takashi Usami to injuries before the Iraq game, Halilhodzic may be without Shinji Okazaki in Melbourne, with the Leicester striker missing training on Sunday after hurting his ankle in the Saitama match.

Halilhodzic declined to comment on Okazaki's fitness but said his team was in reasonable shape to take on the Asian Cup champions at Docklands Stadium.

"Yes, we lack two players and that will be a handicap but I will not search for excuses," the French-speaking coach told reporters through a translator.

"We'll go with courage. I will not be telling you we lack this, we lack that.

"We are in a difficult situation but mentally maybe we will be better. We play against the Asian champions, the best team in Asia and we are very motivated. Each player is thinking to win this game."

Since Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2006, the teams have developed a fierce rivalry, facing off at the 2006 World Cup in Germany and in the 2011 Asian Cup final, which Japan won.

Japan have not lost to Australia in seven years but have been unable to beat them in their last four World Cup qualifiers, including a 2-1 loss in their last Melbourne showdown in 2009.

Halilhodzic did not hesitate to declare Australia favourites for the match and warned his players to brace for huge pressure from highly physical opponents.

He also said his team deserved more credit for their backs-to-the-wall effort against Iraq which left them third place in Asia's Group B on six points, one behind co-leaders Australia and Saudi Arabia.

"We won but not everyone was happy," he said. "I am proud of the last victory, we couldn't play better in the football aspect but we won with courage and character and that's a new situation with Japan."