Hrustic's unexpected return sparks joy among familiar areas of angst

SYDNEY, Australia -- Football is a cruel game, one that takes just as much, if not more, than it gives. By its very nature, so much of what it can provide someone is almost entirely reliant upon another's misfortune; there can only be a winner if there is a loser, and someone can only play if someone else isn't. And while all those that make their living within it are, in some way or another, all tasked with controlling, containing, or predicting the layers of chaotic chance that run through its veins, none can ever hope to do so entirely. That brings us to Ajdin Hrustić.

Back in the squad for the first time since playing 45 minutes in a 2-0 loss to Argentina last June, Hrustić's reintroduction to the Socceroos undoubtedly wasn't of the sort he or Graham Arnold envisioned when he stepped off the team bus at Parramatta Stadium on Thursday. Only just back into playing something approaching regular football at Eredivisie side Heracles Almelo after escaping a nightmarish situation at Hellas Verona -- he revealed to the Sydney Morning Herald last week that the Serie A side, having failed to force him out, didn't even register him for the 2023-24 season -- he was to start the game amongst the substitutes, earmarked for a potential second half role. But then the game started.

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First, the 27-year-old watched on as Riley McGree limped off and was replaced by Jordy Bos after only 16 minutes of Australia's eventual 2-0 win over Lebanon -- one of the players that has emerged as one of the main attacking forces for Australia during Hrustić's absence, now waylaid and forced from the field by the same foot injury that sidelined him for two months earlier this season. Then, he was himself being summoned and ordered to shed his tracksuit in the 42nd to replace the replacement as Bos succumbed to a jarred knee -- the rising star of the Socceroos, whose physical presence and aptitude on the ball has induced Arnold to move him further up the park in an attempt to spark his attack, unable to overcome a malady that will now force him into scans on Friday morning.

All of a sudden, sooner than planned, Hrustić was back on the pitch for Australia. In the cut and thrust of a World Cup qualifier, and facing a Lebanese side that, with Group I rivals Palestine playing Bangladesh twice this window -- they got a 5-0 win in the first of those games in Kuwait overnight -- needed to take something from these games to maintain hopes of reaching the next round. He was doing so on a pitch that was far from ideal, one on which two of his teammates had already come a cropper. No stress, though.

"I'm not nervous, mate, never," he said postgame. "You know me. I feel sorry for the boys [McGree and Bos]. I hope it's nothing serious for them. My hope is just a day or two and they're back with us. For myself, I got 60 minutes and legs and I'm happy."

Socceroos supporters haven't had many opportunities to enjoy Hrustić on the park in recent times. His 45 minutes off the bench against La Albiceleste last June represented the only time he pulled on the green and gold in 2023 and one would have to go back to the World Cup qualification playoffs in 2022, where he logged a full 120 minutes against Peru before Australia's famous penalty shootout win, for the last time he started a competitive fixture. Waylaid by an ankle injury in October, he arrived in Doha for the World Cup hobbled and picked up three appearances off the bench before required surgery that set the stage for his banishment at Verona in the months that followed.

But on Thursday, he was back. And while he wasn't able to impart his will onto his side's play as he did on several occasions during the last qualification cycle, his performance contained several flashes of the skill, creativity, awareness, and pose that makes Hrustić such a valuable piece of the puzzle for this Socceroos side under Arnold. They didn't always come off for the attacker -- on a questionable Parramatta Stadium surface, skill errors were a notable aspect of the performance from all players -- but the flicks, tricks, darting moves between the lines and into pockets of space, and attempted passes that few others in the squad would attempt highlighted the role that the former Heatherton United junior has to play in overcoming one of this team's most consistent bugbears. When fit and in form, there are few, in fact, there are probably none, better Australians at unlocking stubborn defences and getting them past opponents seeking to frustrate and prey on their foibles in possession.

"René [Meulensteen, Socceroos assistant coach] did tell me to calm the game down a bit," said Hrustic. "But calm it down in a [certain] way, because he knows that I like to attack, but it's just [about] a moment when to attack and when to just move the ball and open up pockets, move it left to right and then inject to play in between lines and then turn and face forward.

"I think it worked out you know, especially with Harry [Souttar], we've got that special touch, me and him. I tried to assist him on the set piece balls and he tries to give me those balls in the pocket, so it's working out."

Hrustić now feels almost certain to start Tuesday's second clash with Lebanon, this time at Canberra's Bruce Stadium. Indicative of the ladder that is chaos, his return to form in the Netherlands comes at the same time the squad is hit by a wave of injuries to not only figures such as McGree and Bos -- both whom Arnold declared all but certainly out of Tuesday -- but also those such as Mat Leckie, Marco Tilio, Denis Genreau, and Martin Boyle, whose maladies meant they weren't even in a position to be selected in the squad to begin with.

Craig Goodwin will return next week but with so many options now facing question marks, the stage appears set for Hrustić to start and, should he play the way he's capable of, reestablish himself as one of the national team's most pivotal players a lot earlier than was perhaps anticipated. You couldn't predict it. The swings and roundabouts of football have seen him go from unwanted in Italy to performing in the Netherlands, and now, back starting in green and gold in the space of months. "Everyone wants to start," he said.

And there will likely be few complaining. Because ultimately, it was Graham Arnold's Socceroos that got the win on Thursday.

There were another three points secured, progression to the next round almost assured, a clean sheet kept -- that's eight in their last ten -- and character demonstrated in the face of a poor surface and multiple injuries that would have thrown off the squad. Keanu Baccus and Kye Rowles celebrated maiden international goals during the win. All action Jackson Irvine, meanwhile, won possession on 13 occasions throughout the contest, per Opta, the third most since the company began collecting that data, behind only Aaron Mooy against Saudi Arabia back in 2017 and Mark Milligan against Thailand, also in 2017.

And yet there were also the same familiar areas of angst. The hosts had plenty of the ball -- against a side that though not sitting off as deeply as one might have expected were also not exactly aggressive in their pressing -- but had scant few clear-cut opportunities from open play. Baccus' fifth-minute strike likely helped ensure the Cedars didn't sit back but, at the same time, it's very hard to claim the cross-cum-shot was deliberate and, even if it was, it's not exactly replicable. Rowles' sealer, meanwhile, came off the second phase of a Hrustić corner that bounced off several players before falling to the defender to prop in off the post.

Per Opta, Australia's two goals came off an expected goals (xG) tally of 0.38, compared to the 0.56 put up by Lebanon. In other words, Lebanon didn't look like scoring -- their two best chances came in the last ten minutes off a sloppy Cameron Burgess error and a free kick that probably wasn't -- but Australia, despite their 64% of the ball, didn't create much in the way of good opportunities, either. A familiar refrain, one increasingly moving beyond Arnold and focusing more on the structures and policies surrounding him, what Australian decision-makers value in their football, and the challenge confronting not just the Socceroos but all of Asia's heavyweights.

Because fresh off an Asian Cup wherein it was one of the key lessons, Japan's 1-0 win over North Korea in Tokyo, Saudi Arabia's 1-0 win over Tajikistan in Riyadh, and South Korea's 1-1 draw with Thailand in Seoul provided another demonstration that the gap at the top isn't what it was.