Croatia 2 - Australia 2

The Socceroos bandwagon rolls on, seemingly getting bigger, noisier and more popular by the day. When the last 16 teams in the world start the knock-out phase of the tournament tomorrow (German time), Australia will be among them, simply out of this world.

Stuttgart was transformed into a sea of yellow on this wonderful Thursday, the Socceroos fast becoming one of the stories of this world cup after twice, heroically, coming from behind against a stubborn Croatia to set up another date with destiny, against the might of Italy on Monday in Kaiserslautern.

It seems Australians, football followers and patriots alike, are flying in from all parts of the world, desperate for a ticket, but above all else, just desperate to be a part of these momentous weeks that defy belief. Even locals are fast warming to a team of heroes that personify Australia's never say die mentality, one they can identify with.

After 32 years in the football wilderness, everyone, it seems, is hell bent on having a great time, and making the most of an opportunity we now know doesn't come easily.

Before the game we mingled with Germans at the Schlossplatz, armed with tickets and dressed in green and gold, confident the Socceroos could do the job. Many had visited Australia at some stage, thus the attachment, but others had just been impressed with the spirit of the team, even in defeat against Brazil.

Their faith, and that of the Australians who had arrived in Stuttgart solely for this game, proved well founded, but not after the odd nervy moment. As if the drama of Uruguay, Japan and Brazil wasn't enough, this night had everything, and then some more.

The Socceroos struggled to settle in the early exchanges, as if burdened by the occasion. Viduka gave the ball away in midfield trying to find Grella and then tracked back to make a challenge on the edge of the box, which was deemed by referee Graham Poll a tackle from behind.

Up stepped right wingback Dario Snra, Croatia's dead-ball specialist, to shape one over the wall and past a diving Spider Kalac, surprisingly in the first 11 against the nation that gave birth to his parents.

Hiddink is full of surprises, and sees qualities in Kalac that he doesn't see in Schwarzer, primarily his excellent distribution. Kalac is often a springboard for rapid Socceroos counterattack, spraying the ball wide to the left and the right early, invariably finding a man, and maintaining possession. It is a very South American and European style of play, the way Hiddink likes to play.

Schwarzer is more inclined to hang onto the ball and wait for his team to shape up further up the pitch, launching it forward, thus creating a contest which defenders invariably are favoured to win. It is more an English style of play, not surprising for a keeper who has spent much of his time in the EPL.

The poser for Hiddink is that Kalac's hands don't appear as safe these days, fumbling more times than he should at this level. His error for Niko Kovac's goal was calamitous, but luckily for him, Kewell came to the rescue. While it mightn't save Kalac from getting dropped, it did save him from forever being remembered as the man who cost Australia a second round birth.

It is this 'fine detail' that Hiddink ponders in choosing his players and what makes him such a successful manager. There is no doubt that Kalac was a success as the starting point for Australia's domination of possession. His role in that shouldn't be underestimated.

But the first fundamental in goalkeeping is to get the ball, and Kalac, perhaps due to a lack of games, has looked rusty.

While the Socceoroos fans had teased their Croatian counterparts for much of the day with the tune, “You're red, you're white, you're going home tonight”, it was so nearly Kalac and the Socceroos fans that went home red-faced.

Kalac wasn't the only one who looked nervous in the early exchanges, the Socceroos guilty of giving away too much possession in midfield as the experienced Igor Tudor imposed himself in front of a solid back three of Simunic, Tomas and Simic.

The early goal set the balance for the match, Croatia happy to drop back and absorb a Socceroos attack that was making too many mistakes, particularly in delivery from set pieces. With dead-ball specialist Bresciano on the bench, it was Chipperfield and Emerton entrusted with the set piece responsibility, but too often they got it wrong, failing to clear the first defender on corners.

But the Socceroos, empowered by the tough fitness regime in Melbourne and Holland, kept doing what they do best, coming forward and asking questions of the opposition.

Hiddink also had the tactical ascendency over his counterpart Krancjar, pinning respective wingbacks Babic and Snra by deploying wide options like Sterjovski on the right and Chipperfield and Kewell on the left.

The Socceroos were troubling Croatia whenever they went wide, particularly Sterjovski who had his best game in green and gold against a very good player in Babic.

Eventually the Croatians caved, conceding a penalty that was calmly dispatched by Moore, an outstanding contributor alongside Neill.

With Emerton back to his foraging best, showing phenomenal endurance, the Socceroos finished the half on top and back in control of their own destiny.

Kalac's blunder changed this and for a while it looked like the Socceroos of old, a team with a penchant for shooting itself in the foot.

But this team has a sense of belief and fight that is hard to find, and in Hiddink someone who can read a game an adjust accordingly. With the Socceroos struggling with their final delivery into the box, too often comfortable for Pletikosa and his defence, it was time for Bresciano.

Fifteen minutes remained and Australia's world cup aspirations were disappearing. It was time for one of its stars, Viduka or Kewell, to stand up.

With Kennedy and Aloisi on to provide further targets, Bresciano provided the telling cross which was calmly dispatched by Kewell, who had earlier fired straight at Pletikosa when a shot either side of him would have been a goal.

Suddenly the Socceroos were back in control, but the balance of the team had been shifted by the attacking substitutes. With Grella and Chipperfield sacrificed in search of the equaliser, suddenly Aloisi was deep in midfield, helping Kewell, Cahill and Bresciano, pressing the Croatians and denying them space.

Culina, nominally a midfielder, was at left back. When Emerton was red-carded, Cahill filled in. It was all hands on deck, heroic and brave, but hard to watch.

The post match celebrations were much easier on the eye, Hiddink sending his players back out of the dressing room to soak-up a qualification for the final 16 that doesn't come around every day. It might for him, but not everyone.

The organisers did their part, the players dancing and clapping along to Australiana tunes like Men at Work's 'Land Down Under' and ACDCs 'T.N.T', as Archie Thompson did his best impersonation of Bon Scott with the corner flag. It was crazy, some 20 or so thousand Australians turning VfB Stuttgart's Gottlieb-Daimler Stadium into the Socceroos party for the next two hours as they partied and danced both inside and outside the stadium, scenes replicated long into the night around the Schlossplatz and bars around the city.

Outside the stadium I caught up with a couple of ex-Socceroos in Paul Trimboli and David Mitchell, heroes of the past who never got to experience these heights, at least on the field. But they were here, like thousands of others, to bask in this great new era for the game.

To some they were anonymous, to others a symbol of a time when the game struggled for mass appeal and respect. This was their reward as much as the current crop of players, enjoyed by Socceroo fans old and new.

What we'd seen wasn't always the most flawless performance, but there is little argument the Socceroos deserved their point and their place in the second round. They had outplayed Japan and Croatia and taken it to the world champs for much of the second half, unlucky not to equalise. The Socceroos have survived and flourished in one of the toughest world cup groups, and arrived on the world stage, proving they are not here to merely make up the numbers.

Now comes another great test, against three-time world champs Italy, a team with an uncanny ability to soak up pressure and punish. Earlier in the day we had seen them under the pump for almost half an hour against the Czechs, surviving to score with their first foray forward, a corner monstered by Materazzi. It was typical Italy, absorb and conquer.

In the second period they were much more impressive, a subtle reminder that they have the experience to vary their strategy and get a job done.

But on the evidence of the three performances to date, the Socceroos will go into it with a nothing to lose attitude and, because of their physical conditioning, will have periods where they ask significant questions of the Azzuri rearguard. Just how successful they are at capitalising on these periods of domination will decide how they fare.

The Italians will not underestimate a team coached by Hiddink, who knocked them out with Korea four years ago, but for the Socceroos it will be another chance to take a major scalp and continue this juggernaut ride.

The prevailing attitude is that anything is possible, so it's with that we move back to Kaiserslautern, memorable scene of the victory over Japan.

written by Tony Tannous on The Roundball Analyst