The historical ties between FIFA World Cup Group F rivals Australia and Croatia will provide a fascinating backdrop to their crucial final group stage clash in Stuttgart this evening.
Seven of the Australian squad are of Croatian descent, while the Croatians have three players in their squad who were born in Australia. It adds even more spice to this evening’s match – one that both sides need to win to ensure they have a chance of qualifying for the next phase.
As a result of their opening day win over Japan, Australia enter the game under less pressure than their Balkan opponents. A win for the Socceroos tonight will guarantee their progression to the group stages alongside Brazil, while even a draw may be enough for them if the Brazilians avoid defeat against Japan in the group’s other match in Dortmund. Croatia must win this evening and, like their opponents tonight, hope that Japan do not take all three points against the tournament favourites.
It will be the fifth meeting between the two teams this evening and the first in a competitive game. Australia hold the edge over their opponents with two wins, though their last meeting in 1998 resulted in a 7-0 victory for Croatia.
Australia’s Dutch coach Guus Hiddink has virtually a full squad to call upon this evening, with the only exception being the injury to defender Tony Popovic that will keep him out of tonight’s game. This will probably result in Blackburn’s Lucas Neill moving to centre-half and Brett Emerton moving into the vacant right-back spot. Harry Kewell, who was lucky to escape a ban earlier this week after he insulted the referee following Sunday’s defeat by Brazil, will probably be included from the start tonight as the most advanced player of a five-man midfield.
Hiddink has concerns over Tim Cahill, Emerton, Jason Culina, John Aloisi, Vince Grella and Craig Moore, all of whom are a booking away from suspension. He is unlikely to rest any of them, however, as Australia embark on what is arguably the most important match in their history. The effect that the highly regarded Hiddink has had on the squad is significant. Sunday’s loss to World Champions Brazil was only Hiddink’s second loss in eleven games as Australia boss, a run that includes eight victories and only one draw.
Mentality the key
Hiddink is aiming to guide his team to a win this evening, ensuring stylish qualification for the second round. He has singled out the mentality of his players as their main strength and cited this as a reason for his confidence in victory and subsequent qualification.
“It’s impossible to say, especially to this team, that we sit back and go for a 0-0 draw as it’s not in their nature,” he said on Wednesday.
“The team is going for a win against a high profile opponent. It’s impossible to be the director of a draw here. We are not thinking that the end is near because we’ve had a wonderful preparation and the boys are so committed. I like their attitudes very much, so why should we say goodbye after this game? Let’s have some more.”
Liverpool midfielder Kewell, relieved at avoiding a much-predicted ban, is hopeful that his team’s success in Germany can lead to something of a football revolution in his rugby and cricket dominated homeland.
“We are out here to enjoy ourselves but hopefully also to put Australia on the football map,” he said in the aftermath of Sunday’s defeat by Brazil.
“The more respect we get the more the people back home will play it. We can only make the game grow by playing well and moving further up the ladder. We have taken confidence from the Brazil game, despite the loss, and we are sure that we will still be in the tournament on Thursday night.”
Croatia coach Zlatko Kranjcar is likely to make two changes to the team that drew with Japan on Sunday as they seek the victory that is the minimum requirement to keep their qualification hopes alive. He will be looking to mastermind his team’s first win in their last six games, and of particular concern is the lack of goals. They have failed to find the net in any of their last four matches, and their goal-less finals streak goes back to Milan Rapaic’s goal against Italy in 2002.
As a result of these worrying statistics it is almost certain that Kranjcar will prefer Ivica Olic to the misfiring Ivan Klasnic as Dado Prso’s strike partner. The other predicted change is in defence, where the suspended Robert Kovac will make way for Stjepan Tomas of Turkish club Galatasaray.
Lack of composure
Kranjcar refused to be too disheartened after the disappointing draw with Japan despite his team’s lack of composure in front of goal. He will be hoping that the barren run comes to an end tonight to ease the progress of the 1998 third-placed team.
“We dominated the game against Japan but, as with the match against Brazil, we created a number of chances and did nothing with them,” he said.
“We had a lot of chances but again we didn’t score and that is a real problem for us. We were well organised but had a bit of bad luck.”
The coach went on to discuss the problems that could be presented to his team by the Socceroos this evening, and identified two factors – the Australian passion and their star striker Mark Viduka – as his squad’s main dangers.
“There is no mistaking the passion of those Australian boys,” he said.
“If anything they will be trying even harder to prove their quality and allegiance against us. Their greatest danger is the fact that they play as a team and that they have Mark Viduka. We will have a man on him the whole time.”
Tomas, who may well be the man charged with shadowing the Middlesbrough striker, was equal to his coach in his praise of Viduka.
“He is one of the best strikers I have ever had to play against,” he revealed.
“We are good friends. It is a great opportunity to be able to play against him. I am hopeful I can come out on top and help my country get the win that we desperately need.”
By Mark Robinson
Australia: Schwarzer; Emerton, Neill, Moore, Chipperfield; Grella, Culina, Cahill, Bresciano, Kewell; Viduka
Croatia: Tomas, Simic, Simunic; Srna, Tudor, N Kovac, Babic; Kranjcar; Olic, Prso
Referee:: Graham Poll (England)