World Cup warm-up: Socceroos hold wasteful Colombia
Bert van Marwijk saluted Daniel Vukovic as the debutant restored a little of Australia’s shattered sporting pride by saving Miguel Borja’s penalty in Tuesday’s 0-0 draw against Colombia.
Australian morale is at rock-bottom in the wake of the ball-tampering controversy that has engulfed the nation’s cricket team. Australia captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and batsman Cameron Bancroft will be sent home from South Africa for their roles in the scandal that erupted during the third Test in Cape Town.
Amid the fall-out from that shameful incident, Australia’s footballers had the opportunity to give their public something to be proud of. Van Marwijk’s side did just that with a gutsy display in their World Cup warm-up friendly against the higher-ranked Colombians in London.
After a 4-1 loss in Norway in Van Marwijk’s first game in charge, this was a more encouraging effort ahead of the World Cup in Russia, where Australia will play Denmark, Peru and France in the group stage. And it came with a welcome feel-good story as Vukovic, who plays in relative anonymity for Belgian side Genk, made a memorable contribution on his 33rd birthday.
There were just four minutes left when Vukovic, on as a half-time substitute, conceded a penalty, but he redeemed himself by saving Borja’s strike to ensure Australia avoided a second successive defeat. “He actually saved a few penalties in training so I spoke to him after the match and told him he conceded it on purpose!” Van Marwijk said.
“I’m happy he saved it. We played very well in the first half. In the second it became more difficult, but we had good character to get the 0-0.” Holding Colombia, who have qualified for the World Cup and won in France last week, was a sign of progress for van Marwijk.
“They are one of the best in the world, but we had a good plan,” he said. “Against Norway we wanted to play the same, but we only had one training session. Now you can see the players are understanding how we want to play. We are getting to know each other. We go to Russia to survive the first round. That is our first goal.”
Craven Cottage is usually the home to Championship side Fulham, whose fans are known as some of the more reserved in English football. But for one night only, the historic old stadium was transformed into a vibrant venue as thousands of Colombian fans dressed in their team’s yellow shirts packed the stands.
Their vociferous support had brought Bogota to the banks of the River Thames and it clearly fired up their players. Colombia should have been ahead in the opening moments when Andres Mateus Uribe headed just wide from James Rodriguez’s cross.
In contrast, whether or not it was down to a feeling of shame at Australian sport at present, there weren’t many Socceroos fans in the stands despite the huge expat presence in London. One fan who did make it told AFP that even a successful run by the Socceroos at the World Cup wouldn’t completely erase the bitter taste from the cricket scandal.
“It’s really sad. Cricket is our flagship sport and that reputation has been tarnished. I’d love to see us go well in Russia, but it’s going to take a long time to get over this,” Bryce Kendall said. Australia’s Tomi Juric came closest to testing Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina when his low strike flashed wide.
Vukovic distinguished himself with a good save from Rodriguez’s header before Borja somehow contrived to nod wide from close range. Van Marwijk’s men rode their luck in the 80th minute as Borja’s header hit the post with Vukovic beaten.
When Vukovic rushed off his line and launched into the despairing lunge that brought down Borja and conceded a penalty it seemed he would be the villain. But Vukovic made amends in style as he dived to his left to turn away Borja’s spot-kick.
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