On Friday night Niko Kovac will have a last chance to test his Croatia side before the World Cup. The Croats will end their preparations with a friendly encounter against Australia in the match that should provide some important answers to their inexperienced coach, who will make his World Cup coaching debut against the hosts Brazil on June 12 in Sao Paolo.
Croatia are one of the first teams that arrived in Brazil. They are already praising their camp in Praia de Forte, even though Kovac was forced to move all the morning training sessions to the afternoon due to high temperatures.
It seems that the same reason—acclimation to the conditions in Brazil—is the reason why he wanted to play this Friday against Australia in Bahia. He told the Croatian media that the result is not the most important thing in this match and that he will mix up his squad, saving the ones who are injury-prone.
"Against Australia we will get the answer to one or two more questions," Kovac said, per FootballAustralia.com.au. "There is always the chance of injury, but there is that chance in training too."
He added, "We wanted the match primarily to adjust to the climate as it's one thing to train in Austria and play in Osijek as opposed to playing serious opponents in Brazil."
Croatia defeated Mali 2-1 in Osijek last Saturday, but Kovac did not play his best team in that match. Luka Modric had just returned from the Champions League final with Real Madrid, so he played only the last 20 minutes. Mateo Kovacic, who is expected to start against Brazil, was given half an hour.
In that match Kovac started with Mario Mandzukic as the lone striker, even though the Bayern Munich forward will miss the Brazil match due to suspension, after he was sent off against Iceland in the play-offs.
This basically means that Kovac has not had a chance so far to test his options up front, or at least he is doing his best to hide it from the eyes of the opposition.
Ivan Perisic scored twice against Mali but was playing on the left side of the midfield in a 4-2-3-1 system, while the other side was reserved for veteran Ivica Olic. Nikica Jelavic, who moved from Everton to Hull this season, and former Arsenal star Eduardo da Silva both hope for the chance.
Jelavic netted five goals in 16 league appearances this season for Hull. Eduardo, on the other hand, had only 10 starts in the 23 matches that he played for Shakhtar Donetsk, scoring nine goals. Neither seems good enough to fill Mandzukic’s boots against Brazil.
Another question for Croatia is at left-back. After Ivan Strinic pulled out of the squad because of an injury, Kovac was forced to improvise. Danijel Pranjic from Panathinaikos looks like his best choice, but he was injured as well, and the Australia match could show if he is ready.
The back four is almost shaped up, with skipper Darijo Srna covering the right side and Vedran Corluka being the first-choice central defender. His partner is the only unknown. Southampton's Dejan Lovren has been inferior to Gordon Schildenfeld so far, and it seems that the Panathinaikos defender is closer to the starting XI.
The final puzzle for Kovac is the look of his midfield. Having such class players as Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic in the same place forces him to improvise to get the best out of them. Most of the local media expect Kovac to play all three of them, with Modric and Rakitic sitting deeper and compensating for the lack of a proper holding midfielder. However, there is still an option of using Ognjen Vukojevic as a defensive midfielder, as Kovac did against Mali last Saturday.
In any case, even though Kovac has tried to diminish the significance of the Australia friendly, it is obvious that this match will provide him with some very important answers before the serious business starts.