Socceroos defender Nathaniel Atkinson has been ruled out of Australia’s second World Cup match, against Tunisia on Saturday (9pm AEDT).
Atkinson picked up an ankle injury in the 4-1 defeat to France, and failed to train with the squad today in Doha. He was pictured with ice strapped to his ankle after the loss.
The right-back was repeatedly exposed by France superstar Kylian Mbappe – in part due to a lack of defensive reinforcements – leading to speculation he could be dropped for the crucial clash with Tunisia.
Given the three-day turnaround between group stage matches (and the shortened lead-up to the tournament) players are battling limited recovery and rehabilitation schedules, with many teams expected to make sweeping changes to their starting line-ups.
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Fellow fullback Fran Karacic is the obvious alternative on the right side, but News Corp’s Adam Peacock earlier predicted veteran Milos Degenek – usually a centre-back, but with experience at right half – could be shifted into the role. Versatile defender Thomas Deng is another alternative, but is reportedly battling a hamstring niggle.
Arnold repeatedly backed Atkinson in the wake of the France match, despite his difficult World Cup debut.
Arnold said: “I just said to Nathaniel Atkinson ‘you’re going to remember this for the rest of your life, mate. 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 gonna show them two mistakes, but 10 things you did great’.
“You’ve gotta look at the positives and what that kid’s gonna learn out of it. It’s these types of experiences that you’ve gotta focus more on, and to pick them up.”
HRUSTIC SET TO START
The Socceroos are set for a major boost with playmaker Ajdin Hrustic fit to start against Tunisia on Saturday night.
The attacking midfielder has played 20 times for the Socceroos and was a key figure in qualification for the Qatar tournament, including scoring the winner against UAE that booked the Socceroos a place in the playoff against Peru.
An ankle ligament injury with his Italian top-flight club Hellas Verona last month put Hrustic’s World Cup dream in doubt, and he wasn’t fit enough to take to the field against France.
But the crafty left-footer has been rated 95 per cent fit by Socceroos boss Graham Arnold.
“And the other 5% doesn’t matter,” Arnold joked. “[Hrustic] can start. We’ll see how he is … and make sure he’s ready to go.”
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