More Questions Than Answers for Croatia After Australia Friendly

Sasa IbruljCorrespondent IJune 7, 2014

SALVADOR, BRAZIL - JUNE 06: Tim Cahill of the Socceroos controls the ball in front of goal during the International Friendly match between Croatia and the Australian Socceroos at Pituacu Stadium on June 6, 2014 in Salvador, Brazil.  (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Nikica Jelavic's lone strike was enough for Croatia to defeat Australia in Bahia on Friday night in the last friendly match that Niko Kovac's side will play before the World Cup opener against Brazil on June 12.

However, what was supposed to be the final test for Kovac and his side ended up bringing more questions than answers, leaving Croatia as something of a mystery before the Brazil match.

The Australia friendly was only the fifth match for Kovac as Croatia manager. The iconic defensive midfielder took over the team just before the World Cup play-offs—two vital matches against Iceland.

Since then his team has played Switzerland (in February), Mali (a week ago) and Australia (on Friday), but Kovac decided to use these matches to play hide-and-seek with his World Cup opposition. 

He fielded a mixed team in Osijek against Mali and did the same against the Socceroos, highlighting the question marks the Croats already had. This time he left Vedran Corluka, probably the first-choice centre-back, on the bench, alaong with Gordon Schildenfeld, instead pairing Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida in this role.

This left the question of the second centre-back—next to Corluka—still wide open. Will Kovac go for Lovren, who played 90 minutes last night, or Schildenfeld, a favourite of the Croatian media?

The other important question supposed to be answered in Bahia was the one on the shape of Croatian midfield. Will Kovac use a classic holding midfielder or try to exploit the creativeness he has in the trio of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic?

On Friday he went for a sort of experiment, leaving Rakitic on the bench and playing Dinamo Zagreb's Marcelo Brozovic together with Modric behind Kovacic. For most of the time, this did not work well, Croatia unable to gain control in the middle and struggled to hold the pace.

The pressure on Modric was huge, with young guys relying on him trying to figure out the solution. The Real Madrid player stepped up to the occasion in the second half, assisting for the goal, but for most of the match, it did not look good.

In any case, it is hard to believe that Kovac will risk leaving an in-form Rakitic on the bench in competitive matches, but the question on how the Croatian midfield will look remains unanswered.

Darko Bandic/Associated Press

Maybe the only dilemma that Kovac tried to solve against Australia was the question of the striker. Mario Mandzukic got himself suspended for the Brazil match after he was sent off in the play-off match against Iceland in Zagreb, forcing Kovac to find a replacement.

He started both contenders for this position—Nikica Jelavic and Eduardo—moving the Croatian-Brazilian to the right side where veteran Ivica Olic usually operates.

Jelavic scored the winning goal, but his performance was far from impressive, lacking mobility and movement without the ball, and it is yet to be seen if he deserved his place in the starting XI against Brazil or if that will instead be reserved for Eduardo.

Not only did this match not provide us—or the Brazilians—with the answers on how Croatia will look in five days from now, it opened some new problems for Kovac.

Danijel Pranjic, Kovac's only proper solution at left-back, was forced to leave the pitch due to an injury that looked quite serious. He was replaced by Sime Vrsaljko, but no doubt the news from Pranjic's further examinations, planned for Saturday, will be awaited with anxiety.

Croatia will play their first 2014 World Cup match on Thursday with their cards still being hidden well. Was the fact that Kovac did not try to solve his issues, or even test his best team on the pitch, just mind games—or a sign of the inexperience of the Croatian coach?

That is yet to be seen.