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Saturday, June 17, 2006
Croatia's Kovac to start against Japan

BAD BRUECKENAU, Germany, June 17 (Reuters) - Croatia captain Niko Kovac was still in pain on Saturday after injuring his ribs in the opening World Cup match but he expected to play against Japan on Sunday.

Kovac was taken off after 40 minutes into his side's 1-0 defeat by Brazil following a heavy challenge from Ze Roberto but he told a news conference on Saturday he had completed a full training session and was ready to play in Nuremberg on Sunday.

'I still have pain but I've played with bigger injuries than (this) before,' he said, explaining that he had been fielded with a broken arm previously.

'I hope that God up there will take care of us and that we will go out as the winner tomorrow.'

Croatia were always aware that they would struggle to beat Brazil and had stressed they would focus on the two other Group F opponents, Japan and Australia.

But they have taken confidence from their strong showing against the World Cup holders, when only some outstanding saves by Brazilian goalkeeper Dida prevented them from scoring.

In contrast, the Japan camp were deeply disappointed following their late collapse against Australia when they conceded three goals in the last eight minutes to lose 3-1.

'Whoever loses tomorrow is out of the tournament,' Kovac said. 'Whoever wins will most likely have a final against Australia (to get through to the second round).'

Kovac said they had a lot of respect for the Japanese team and they would look to make the most of their height advantage especially at set pieces.

'You can see from the way we played against Brazil what our expectations are,' he said of his side's attacking play. 'I am very confident that we can go out and win tomorrow.'

Substitute striker Ivica Olic, who is struggling with a thigh injury, told reporters he had not yet completed a full training session and was not sure whether he would be available to play on Sunday.

Croatia coach Zlatko Kranjcar has said he is confident his side can beat Japan, having watched their performance against Australia, and looked relaxed ahead of the game on Sunday.

'Individually I think we are better (than Japan) and collectively we are a very good group and if we show the game that we showed against Brazil we should go all the way in this game,' he said.

Croatia play Australia in their third group match on June 22.

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