This warm-up friendly against Croatia, a 1-0 nil defeat, has given the Socceroos both reassurances and worries. In a game where it seemed the opposition was playing thoroughly within themselves, the Socceroos nonetheless left without egg on their faces. Luke Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic et al were content to jog through this match, never getting out of 1st gear. But they are a team of Champions League and Europa League winners, and the last time Australia faced a top 20 side, they were spanked 6-0 b France. So for Australia to leave having only conceded one relatively fortuitous goal is a respectable effort indeed.
Australia began the game with verve and energy, harrying from the opening minute. A couple of over-enthusiastic challenges from Tim Cahill set the urgent tone, and Croatia will be more than annoyed to have had a player go off injured in the first half because of such a challenge. Just like the game against South Africa, the Socceroos aimed to get the jump on their opponents, trying to exploit any sense of complacency. This sort of pragmatism will be invaluable in the World Cup because The Netherlands, Chile and Spain will almost certainly be expecting easy wins against Australia in the group matches. The midfield duo of Milligan and Jedinak may well be their two best players, two thoughtful and composed turf-hustlers. They are each able to balance their defensive responsibilities (of which there will be many in the Cup) and the urge to surge forwards. Actually, both are much more defensively minded naturally and will look to provide a defensive shield first and foremost, but Milligan in particular is capable of shuttling the ball from back to front with slickness and imagination.
So, a template of sorts was indicated for the Roos here; the most threatening moments in the first half came from longer balls out to the wingers, Leckie and Vidosic. With Oar playing in a new number 10 position (and not performing all that well in it) the eager running and high-octane dribbling of Vidosic and Leckie caused the most problems for Croatia. Davidson provided a number of overlapping gallops from fullback as well, adding to this pressure from the flanks. Milligan found them all ably, more often than not, but what was disappointing was the lack of a considered final ball from the wingers. If this template is going to be used, then the crossing will have to be much better than it was against South Africa, and again here tonight. The FFA stats section showed that Australia’s cross success rate for the first half was exactly 0%. It’s all well and good to scurry into promising forward positions, but to then blindly whip it into the box, hoping for Cahill to get there, isn’t going to give Australia much hope in Brazil.
The defence was, on the other hand, outstanding. The goal they eventually conceded was fortunate to say the least, a mazy run ended with Modric with the ball at his feet just outside the box. His pass was heavily deflected and fell to Nikica Jelavic, all alone right in front of goal. He had all the time he needed to guide it past Mat Ryan. But aside from that one unlucky moment, Spiranovic and Wilkinson had a strong games, constantly clearing crosses from deep, with Srna bombing in a number of threatening balls. Mat Ryan made some good saves when called upon and Ivan Franjic was generally energetic and reliable at right back. After the 6-0 shellacking to France (who at the time were only 1 place above Croatia in the world rankings) this sort of miserly performance is eagerly welcomed.
A telling substitution came when Mark Bresciano entered the fray late in the second half. Immediately the transitions from deeper midfield to attack were smoother and slipperier, Bresciano and Milligan sweetly combining to work their way over the halfway line a number of times. Oar’s best position is surely out wide, his pace and dribbling more useful out there. He was unable to link up, as Bresciano immediately was able to, with Milligan in the more central areas. If diagonal balls out to wingers are to be a hallmark of Postecoglou’s side, then he may consider not playing a forward-sitting number 10, and think about Bresciano playing right in the middle of the park, a hinge-midfielder able to distribute to the flanks from deep when needed, or to break forward with Milligan when the opportunity arises.
Nevertheless, the Socceroos can be proud of their performance, and take confidence from their defending. There were no injury troubles, always a priority in warm-up games, and as Ange Postecoglou said post-match; “It was a good test, we can take a lot of positives from this”. Nothing more needs to be made from this match than that, I suppose.