With one eye already on the crucial World Cup qualifier against Oman in March, the Socceroos' friendly against Romania in Spain will act as a tune-up
|By JAMES WILLOUGHBY
Wilkshire, Neill, Williams, Zullo
McKay, Milligan, Bresciano
Kruse, Brosque, Holman
Rat, Goian, Tamas, Chiriches
Torje, Bourceanu, Pintili, Alexe
Australia will play their first match of a pivotal 2013 when they battle Romania in the Spanish city of Malaga on Thursday morning.
Holger Osieck's side will look to gain confidence and momentum from the friendly ahead of March's crucial 2014 Fifa World Cup qualifier against Oman in Sydney.
Australia are unbeaten in their past six matches - although four of them were against regional minnows in the East Asian Cup qualifiers - and last tasted defeat in September.
That was a crucial loss, however. Jordan outclassed them in a 2-1 win in Amman and it leaves the Socceroos in some danger of missing football's biggest party in Brazil in 2014.
The importance of the Oman match is reflected in the quality of the squad Osieck has chosen.
Having given chances to a host of fringe players based in Australia and Asia in the East Asian Cup qualifiers, the German is now keen to cast an eye over his European-based contingent in this fixture.
Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Mark Bresciano and Luke Wilkshire will provide the experience and are complemented by the likes of German-based pair Robbie Kruse and Mathew Leckie, FC Utrecht's Michael Zullo and Heracles full-back Jason Davidson.
Middlesbrough captain Rhys Williams, a huge talent capable of playing in a variety of positions, is also included in the 19-man squad.
The West Australian has missed a series of squads due to persistent injury problems but is now fit and will make his first national team appearance since August.
With Neill suspended for the qualifier against Oman, Williams - along with Robert Cornthwaite and Ryan McGowan - will be hoping for a chance to push their claims in defence.
Zullo and Davidson will compete for the vacant left-back place, while Melbourne Victory's Mark Milligan could be thrust straight into a defensive midfield role after his late call-up when Tommy Oar and Mile Jedinak were forced to withdraw from injury.
Despite the presence of a strong group of players, Socceroos fans would be foolish to take Romania lightly.
They are ranked 33rd in the world - three places above their opponents- and have won four of their past six matches in all competitions.
Of those results, two immediately leap off the page, with wins over Turkey and Belgium particularly impressive.
The 1-0 triumph over Turkey in Istanbul was in an all-important World Cup qualifier, while a 2-1 friendly win over the latter also deserves credit.
With one team automatically going through - which is most likely to be the Netherlands - in Group D of Europe's World Cup qualifying, the likes of Hungary, Romania and Turkey are scrapping away for the second spot to put them into the playoffs.
Romania are just goal difference behind the second-placed Hungary after three wins in four fixtures.
Victor Piturca's side are coming off a loss, however, with a squad made up of domestic players losing a friendly 4-1 to Poland on Saturday, also in Malaga.
Piturca decided to rest his senior players but a heavy training load in the build-up to the match backfired as they conceded four times in the first half.
Key attackers Ciprian Marica [Schalke 04] and Adrian Mutu [Ajaccio] will not be playing against the Aussies either, while Roma goalkeeper Bogdan Lobont will also be on the sidelines.
There is still plenty of quality in Romania's squad with Gabriel Torje [Granada] in particularly good form for his country.
The on-loan Udinese attacker has scored four goals in his past six appearances.
Defenders Razvan Rat [Shakhtar Donetsk] and Gabriel Tamas [West Bromwich Albion] will also add experience to Piturca's squad.
But Australia will enter the match in buoyant fashion and, with a series of players keen to prove themselves to Osieck, will fancy their chances of claiming victory in Spain.