With just under 48 hours until the Socceroos open their 2018 World Cup campaign against France, plenty of intrigue still surrounds a number of Bert van Marwijk’s key selection decisions.
At the back, reverted central-midfielder Mark Milligan has shot to the front of the queue in the stakes to partner Trent Sainsbury versus Les Blues.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported – while the Socceroos were stationed in camp in Antalya, Turkey – that van Marwijk had issued Milligan something of an ultimatum.
Play in the heart of defence or you are cut.
And the Dutchman’s words seemed to ring true in pre-World Cup friendlies against the Czech Republic and Hungary as Milligan formed part of the back four.
The Al-Ahli man started and finished both matches, helping maintain a clean sheet in the 4-0 win over the disappointing Czechs.
It was all a little less convincing against Hungary a week later, but alas Milligan held his spot for the full 90 minutes in Budapest with a Socceroos win at the end of it.
With France and their big-name attacking talent just over the horizon, 32-year-old Milligan is odds-on to kick off his fourth World Cup as a starting centre-half ahead of Matthew Jurman and Milos Degenek.
The likes of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Olivier Giroud await.
“I’m firstly very happy to be a part of Bert’s squad … the fact that I was aware of it coming in and in the last sort of three weeks I’ve been able to focus, it’s been good,” Milligan told a media conference on Thursday.
“It’s not always easy being shifted around or not knowing where I was going to play and it’s a different way of playing. I have to do things differently. I’ve been playing midfield for a long time.
“I play different passes, I see things differently, so being able to focus and train in one position definitely makes it easier. Being able to fight for one position gives me a little bit more of a home.”
Conjecture suggests Didier Deschamps is set to go nimble up front with Mbappe and Dembele to form an attacking pair at Kazan Arena.
Such is the quality of France’s world-beating depth that a host of internationally recognised stars could be left in reserve as go-to options.
But whoever the opposition may be, Milligan says Australia – and him personally – will be ready.
“There’ll be slight adjustments depending on who plays, but the main focus defensively for us over the last three weeks is the way Bert wants us to play and to set up, it won’t matter about the opposition,” Milligan added.
“We’re going to be very focused defensively on our position and shutting down any type of attack and that’s a lot of the reason why we work so hard in the leadup, in him wanting us to be so fit.
“It doesn’t matter whether they go with two, or they go with pace or they go with height. The way that we set up defensively, we should be able to combat, hopefully, whatever they start with.”
In pushing up the line, Milligan has displaced Suwon Bluewings defender Jurman.
The four-times capped Socceroo quickly endeared himself to fans with assured performances at the back in World Cup play-offs against Syria and Honduras.
So soon after he was called up as part of an Ange Postecoglou selection surprise, Jurman looked right at home in the then back three.
Since then though he has struggled to hold down his spot in the starting XI under van Marwijk.
“It’s been tough (to not be in the starting XI),” Jurman said.
“Obviously you want to be out there with the boys, especially leading up to something so big, but you’ve got to stay mentally strong and just keep preparing as normal.”
Each player brings his own quality to the starting XI.
Milligan; cool, calm, experienced, excellent by foot.
Jurman; left-footed and unwavering, thrown in the excitement of a first World Cup.
Comparatively, Milligan gets the nod by virtue of games played with a total of 31 in the 2017-18 season, across four different competitions.
Jurman has suffered with injury, earning just four appearances in the K-League 1 and Asian Champions League.
Regardless of who is entrusted with van Marwijk’s faith, the task is equally monumental.
Heavy defeat against the might of France could spell the end of Russia 2018 before it has even begun.