Oh-man, 2-2, now it’s exciting

Australia 2 – Oman 2

Four years ago, the first time through Asia, Australia qualified for the World Cup and it was a snooze. The opposition were in such fear that they meekly sat back, allowing coach Pim Verbeek to take few risks, preferring to rely on a banal strategy of using the inevitable opportunism of chances for the team to capitalise. The team rarely created their own chances by cutting down the opposition. While it wasn’t pretty, it worked. It also had repercussions. A team without the hard graft that the move to Asia was supposed to create was readily exposed at the World Cup.

In 2012, Australia is not having it as easy, and blindly fans and commentators alike work themselves into a lather about “performance” and decrees of “we must win” and “if we can’t beat Oman we don’t deserve to be in the World Cup”, and predicting 3-0 victories. Even coach Holger Osieck said in the lead-up that this match against Oman was a final. One look at the points table would have seen that an utter nonsense. Presuming Japan beat Jordan in the other match, a draw against Oman would not change a thing. Post-match, upon seeing the points table, Osieck even made this salient point.

As a nation, Australians can be so precious, bordering on conceited. This translates into a culture of bullying opposition and expecting automatic success. First it was just long-established surly cricket team, then swimming and other Olympians, and now it’s bleeding into our once humble football team. Australia wanted out of Oceania for some “competition” and “insurance” in Asia. It comes, and we still complain. For some reason Australia must be playing a fluid passing game of 98% completion, win at least 2-0 and deny the opposition a shot on goal. That’s not football. Not even in a videogame.

It’s time to get real and stop whingeing when the vagaries that we appreciate so much about the sport actually dish up one of those vagaries in our faces. Oman scored fairly and nicely after six minutes, and suddenly something is really wrong. No it isn’t. That’s the sport. Just as one of its priceless vagaries dished up the delicious equaliser by the consistently error-prone Brett Holman. While we should be regaling in the team’s ability to rescue a perilous situation and salivating at the moderate challenge ahead, we just whinge.

Yes, a moderate challenge it still is for Australia. Even with Jordan later beating Japan in the other match, they are 1 point above Australia, Australia have a game in hand of their nearest opponents, two of those games at home, one against Jordan in Melbourne. Don’t fret or whinge. Enjoy.

The match itself proved the most exciting of the campaign, thanks to the vagaries of the sport. Conceding a goal so early would knock most teams off their game. While Australia did look lacklustre at times, generally they kept it relatively tidy, created chances, and all being mindful of the danger of conceding another goal. When the unlucky own-goal was conceded at the start of the second half to make it 2-0, tremendous resilience was shown to save the game. First Tim Cahill with a trademark and timely header from a corner to quickly make it 2-1, and then Holman’s 85th minute long strike through a box so crowded that it might have temporarily blinded Oman’s goal-keeper from making an early lunge. The players just didn’t give up – as is also a consistent Australian trait. It’s when as favourites that things go awry. The warm and humid conditions also made it tough for several of the players coming from the cold northern winter, further validating the effort.

Even Osieck seemed affected mentally by the conditions, substituting Robbie Kruse early, when Kruse was the team’s most dangerous player, and currently playing the team’s highest level club football. Also puzzling is Osieck’s persistence with Cahill as striker when logic suggests Kruse should be there with Cahill in his customary deeper, lurking mid-field role. Not only is Cahill’s strike-rate far diminished up front, it propels the team into the lower percentage and annoying early long ball game. With Australia stuttering in midfield, an idea instead of substituting Kruse would be to push him forward, drop Cahill to midfield then substitute Alex Brosque for Archie Thompson.

Again, Australians under-estimate the toughness and pressure of World Cup qualifiers. Maybe the time in Oceania insulated the public from seeing this through the haze and nerves of the “Cup final” play-offs that Australia had to endure. Or more likely, with the the success in 2006 and the ease of qualifying in 2010, fans are looking too far ahead and treating the qualifiers as an indication to potential performance at the finals themselves. That is wrong. We are not that country yet and need to take a step back to tough and uncompromising reality that is to just qualify for the World Cup. It’s nothing short than we asked upon entering Asia. Maybe, with the team in a transitional phase and the younger players failing to step up and fill the void, it’s happening sooner than we like. That’s just another of those vagaries of football.

Points & GD
Japan 13, +10
Jordan 7, -6
Australia 6, 0
Oman 6, -3
Iraq 5, -1

Schedule
04/06 Jap v Aus; Oma v Irq
11/06 Aus v Jor; Irq v Jap
18/06 Aus v Iraq; Jor v Oma

A draw and two wins guarantee Australia. Beating both Jordan and Iraq is enough if Oman don’t win both their games. Otherwise it’s goal difference. A draw with Jordan and a win and a draw elsewhere is almost certainly enough. Beating Jordan and drawing with Iraq possibly enough (depends on Oman). These equations only matter to finish second. Remember, third place goes through the play-offs. Just another timely vagary to keep us excited.

More at socceroorealm.com

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