Australia 0-1 Croatia: More positives than negatives for the Socceroos

Australia concluded their World Cup preparations with a final friendly loss against Croatia. The Socceroos’ will now return to Vitoria ahead of their first group match with Chile on Friday.

The result itself wasn’t the be all and end all but Croatia offered a decent test for Australia, who will be up against two other possession based European sides; Netherlands and World champions Spain at the World Cup. Croatia fielded a strong side including Champions League winner Luka Modric, Dario Srna and from the bench Mario Mandzukic and Europa League champion Ivan Rakitic; a serious upgrade in opposition for Australia then, who edged local Brazilian side Parana Clube 2-0 a couple of days before.

Postecoglou named arguably his strongest side with a couple of notable final experiments including another CB partnership with recovering Matthew Spiranovic making his first appearance of the training camp, alongside Alex Wilkinson who hadn’t impressed in his last start against South Africa. The other talking point saw a new attacking midfield trio, which moved usual left winger Tommy Oar into a central number 10 position with Dario Vidosic and Matthew Leckie flanking the diminutive playmaker.

From the off it was clear that Postecoglou’s usual possession based game had evolved to bypass Croatia’s technically superior midfield. Often the ball was immediately played long or diagonally from deep lying central midfielders Mile Jedinak or Mark Milligan to the on-rushing wingers or striker Tim Cahill pulling out wide.

Their whole style hadn’t been ditched however, returning right back Ivan Franjic and Jason Davidson on the opposite flank continued to flood forward past their wide midfielders and once again looked the Socceroos’ best out ball. Franjic’s return and subsequent excellent display went some way to mute criticism of Luke Wilkshire’s exclusion from the squad earlier in the week. Barring a recurrence of his recent knee injury, Franjic will be one of the Aussie’s star performers as he looks to push for a move to Europe after the World Cup.

The first half was an indication of what the whole 90 minutes had in store with both sides sitting deep allowing each defence to have an abundance of possession before playing it long. A few poor decisions apart, defensively Australia looked strong, an area many were questioning before the match. Wilkinson looked strong in the air and alongside the more technical Spiranovic gained confidence to play out from the back. The only lapse in the first half came when the duo fell flat footed to let in Eduardo, only to be denied by Mat Ryan in Australia’s goal.

The question marks were now aimed further up field with Postecoglou experimenting with numerous attacking blends throughout the 90 minutes. Vidosic had another quiet appearance only occasionally linking up with the flying Franjic, while Leckie on the other flank had decent bursts but couldn’t find the space needed to run at Croatia’s back four. Oar in the central support striker role worked wonders defensively, staying disciplined on the half way line and worked well in tandem with Cahill to press the centre halves. However, in an attacking sense he similarly found little time and space to work his magic and will likely shift back out wide for the World Cup opener.

Of the substitutes that appeared during the second half a couple certainly will have caught Postecoglou’s eye. Mark Bresciano with his first appearance since his surprise inclusion in Postecoglou’s young squad repaid the faith showed in him, with a lung bursting display that helped knit the midfield together with the lone front man. He has greater capabilities to drop deeper and keep possession over his rivals but has the motor to link up with Australia’s wide men.

One wide man being Ben Halloran who continued on from his impressive cameo against South Africa with another willing and inventive display. He offers greater speed than his compatriots but at times illustrated his naivety in possession and came across too eager in the final 10 minutes. Troisi and Taggart also made brief appearances from the bench but made little impression and will hope for similar opportunities once the tournament starts proper.

The goal when it came was just about deserved, Croatia offered a greater attacking threat even though it was mainly from distance. Australia were unfortunate when Modric’s blocked shot spun to an unmarked Jelavic to steal the win for the Europeans. Strokes of luck will come and go at the World Cup but in truth Australia threatened very little and only troubled Pletikosa effectively once when Oar’s long distance cross-come-shot unfortunately only clipped the post after missing the incoming attackers in the middle.

Depending on your outlook you could see both the positive and the worrying aspects of the Aussies performance. The defence which has been criticised for months showed solidity, composure and confidence which could all inspire hope going into the World Cup. However, an area in which Australia previously looked strong, fresh and willing, in attack, looked plainly out of ideas and needed a veteran in Bresciano off the bench to knit the centre midfield together. All things considered this was a solid final warm up match that can inspire confidence for Australia going into the Chile clash.

Player ratings (/5)

Starting XI:

Maty Ryan – 3/5 – Confident display from the youngster who at times lacked communication with his back four.

Ivan Franjic – 4/5 – All action performance from Australia’s greatest attacking force but also performed solidly in defence.

Alex Wilkinson – 4/5 – His best performance in an Australian shirt. Strong in the air, should start versus Chile.

Matthew Spiranovic – 4/5 – Cool display. Developing a strong partnership with Wilkinson.

Jason Davidson – 3/5 – A threat going forward but was caught out in some defensive situations.

Mile Jedinak – 3/5 – Calm in possession but looked clumsy in the tackle and gave away some dangerous free kicks.

Mark Milligan – 4/5 – All round solid performance with little in the way of downsides. Distributed long balls well.

Dario Vidosic – 2/5 – Invisible for much of the first half. Over elaborated in tight situations.

Tommy Oar – 3/5 – Willing runner without the ball but lacked space to create with it. Better when moved out to the left.

Matthew Leckie – 2/5 – Failed to get hold of the ball enough to run at the opponent’s defence. Disappeared when he moved to centre forward.

Tim Cahill – 3/5 – Lead the line soundly, winning plenty of long balls in the air. Got drawn into too many fouls.

Subs:

Ben Halloran – 3/5 – Quick, exciting but often too keen to impress.

Mark Bresciano – 4/5 – Strong display who brought the attack into play after an average first half.

James Holland – 3/5 – Sound in possession but largely unspectacular.

James Troisi – 3/5 – Didn’t get enough of the ball to impress.

Matt McKay – 3/5 – Circulated the ball well in his brief appearance.

Adam Taggart – 3/5 – Didn’t see enough of the ball in the last 5 minutes.

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