Hiddink's Australia plot remake of the Italian job

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The Independent Football

Guus Hiddink, having guided South Korea past Italy to the quarter-final of the last World Cup, will this afternoon attempt the same trick with his Australian Socceroos. The Dutch coach, who was top of many observers' lists to replace Sven Goran Eriksson with England, went on to reach the last four, emulating the feat he achieved with his own country in 1998.

He has already made one big decision for today's game by dropping goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac, whose howler in the last group match against Croatia could have meant elimination. Had Harry Kewell not scrambled an equalising goal with 11 minutes to play, the team would have lost 2-1 and Croatia would have qualified instead.

Hiddink had boldly brought in Kalac for Middlesbrough's Mark Schwarzer, who was angry at being left out. But the Milan reserve, nicknamed "Spider" became tangled up in his own web, fumbling an innocuous shot from Niko Kovacs into the net.

Liverpool's Kewell, having saved the day and been named man of the match, may be missing today. He is still troubled by the groin injury that has caused him much angst over the last year and almost forced him out of the tournament altogether.

Australia are already without Tony Popovic, the Crystal Palace defender, and Blackburn's Brett Emerton, whom Hiddink feels will be a bad loss. "I regret the absence of Brett because he is a very important player for us," he said. "That is why I like to play always with a flexible system, with players who must have the ability to play in several spots because if a player is limited in defence or midfield to playing in just one position then you are vulnerable.

"But it's not easy to replace Brett Emerton because he is giving a lot of energy to this team. He is a very athletic player and when you see him running all over the place, not just in the first 15 minutes but in minute 85, then he is one of the fittest players at this World Cup."

Had Popovic been fit, Australia could have moved Lucas Neill from the centre of defence to replace his Blackburn colleague in midfield. Options now may be limited to bringing in the young Australian A-Leaguer Mark Milligan, or the more experienced Marco Bresciano of Parma.

Neill believes his team's best chance is to unsettle Italy physically, as the United States did in the 1-1 draw during which three players were sent off. As the Australians are by nature a physical side, that could lead to another feisty encounter.

Hiddink said: "The modern game is a very attacking game, a very physical game. The strong point about the Australian team is that even when we are down, and unfortunately we have been down in all our games at this tournament, the team always reacts and never gives the impression that it's lost. That's the main quality of this team. We're looking forward to making the next step but it's going to be a very difficult one. They are 100 per cent favourites for this round but we hope to oppose them as well as we can, for as long as we can."

Hiddink added: "I think the Italian team has changed a great deal [since 2002]. They've got a much more offensive way of playing now. Four years ago, they played practically with only one forward and a very defensive manner. They've changed mentality. They play modern football now, so they're more dangerous."

Italy are without Daniele De Rossi, who is serving a four-match ban, while Alessandro Nesta has a groin injury and will be replaced by former Everton defender Marco Materazzi. Francesco Totti may play behind Alberto Gilardino in attack.

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