Fran Karacic will start at right-back for the Socceroos’ crunch World Cup clash against Tunisia, after Nathaniel Atkinson was ruled out with what coach Graham Arnold said was an ankle knock picked up in the opening loss to France.
But the fitness of key attacker Ajdin Hrustic remains in question for Saturday’s match at Al Janoub Stadium.
Karacic, who plays Italian Serie B side Brescia Calcio, has been given the nod ahead of other options Thomas Deng and Miloš Degenek.
The 26-year-old, who was selected in Bert van Marwijk’s extended squad for Russia 2018 but missed the final cut, is more defensively minded than Atkinson, who endured a difficult World Cup debut against Kylian Mbappé in Tuesday night’s 4-1 humbling.
“Nathaniel got a bit of a knock on the ankle again, that’s why we took him off [against France],” Arnold said in his pre-match press conference. “Fran Karacic will come in and we’ll get him ready for the game.”
The previous day Arnold acknowledged Atkinson’s baptism of fire.
“I just said him, ‘you’re going to remember this for the rest of your life, mate’,” Arnold said. “‘You’re going to sit there in 20 years’ time when you retire, with a beer in your hand, telling everyone how you played against one of the best players in the world, and you’re going to show them two mistakes, but 10 things you did great’.”
The Socceroos trained under the sun for the first time since arriving in Doha on Friday, in preparation for a 1pm local time kick-off, with temperatures hovering in the early 30s despite it being winter and the air conditioning in stadiums not completely compensating for the oppressive heat.
Arnold offered little on Hrustic, who has been recovering from an ankle injury and played no part in Australia’s opener, saying on that “he’s getting there”.
“He trained well tonight,” he said. “He recovered well, he’s mentally and physically in good shape. Tomorrow will be a physical game, we’ve got to match the physical aspect of it.”
He was also vague on other personnel changes, including which striker he would start. Mitchell Duke was in the XI against France for his physicality and ability to hold up the ball, but Jamie Maclaren’s intelligence and off-the-shoulder runs could be a good fit in the bid to break down Tunisia.
“Jamie’s a great goal-scorer,” Arnold said. “Mitchell Duke works hard … at some stage you’ll see both of them on the field.”
Duke is one of three players carrying yellow cards, along with Jackson Irvine and Aaron Mooy. Arnold, however, indicated he was willing to risk them all playing despite the possibility of a second yellow and automatic suspension for the third and final game against Denmark.
Meanwhile, the Tunisia coach, Jalel Kadri, said he was “not surprised by the score” of Australia’s 4-1 humbling at the hands of defending champions France.
He noted several times Australia’s “stamina and fitness”, but had little else to say about the team’s strengths.
“The Australian team is capable of playing a high level of matches,” Kadri said. “They have players who are able to run very rapidly, who can take opportunities. Nevertheless, they have some weaknesses that we will be able to [exploit].”