The end of an era for the Socceroo Realm

13 November 2017

No, the Socceroo Realm is not disappearing! It’s evolving. Evolving with the times. Primarily that is with its format. Since its inception almost 20 years ago (yes, the Socceroo Realm will be 20 years old in March 2018!), it’s lived on my personal webspace allocated by my ISP at alphalink.com.au. That was the primary site. With the advent of mobile devices, a secondary site was setup a few years ago at wordpress.com. Part of this was to make it more readable on phones. Another part was for more visibility. The final part was for remote updating. On alphalink, I could only really update it at home. Coincidentally, I leave for Japan for holidays late on the night of Australia vs Honduras and possibly will miss the latter stages of the game. Any website update about our success (or demise) in qualifying will be done on the phone in Japan!

Australia vs Iran 1997 World Cup qualifier ticket

The event that started it all. My ticket to the fatal World Cup qualifier between Australia and Iran in 1997.

Then there’s the evolution in web technology. The Socceroo Realm started as a basic HTML site, and it still is a basic HTML site. There’s no java, no SQL, no PHP or ASP, no plugins, no database connections and no user interaction. It’s 100% static pages and the entire 20 years worth of blogging is spread over 110 pages and totals less that 4MB in data. To upgrade the site would require too much learning, and too much hassle. Almost certainly my ISP’s webspace wouldn’t offer all the tools required anyway, and the 20 MBs of space wouldn’t last long. Nor has it ever been viable to upgrade given it’s a 100% personal opinion site, not the news and information service that was part of its original premise. Since the primary reason for writing was fun, learning HTML was as far as I ever wanted to go. Besides, free editing software meant producing HTML pages weren’t much more complicated than creating a Word document.

Since the WordPress site came into existence, I’ve maintained both it and the alphalink site. Typically WordPress is updated first, and a few days later the content added to the alphalink site. My Twitter feed was embedded at alphalink so those that frequented the site could see the updates immediately, plus any spontaneous thoughts. In fact, being able to react instantaneously on Twitter has placed a greater premium on mobile access, and a lesser need for sitting behind a computer for a general, more formal, update. Although, football times have changed significantly over the years too. Whereby Australia’s time in Oceania meant the entire focus was on the intercontinental World Cup playoff every four years and the Confederations Cup and Youth tournaments during the interim period, these days, in Asia, there’s so many games that writing has become more focused on broader issues of the campaign, rather than the minutiae of each game.

Recently I moved house and ditched the old ISP for a new one. That means my alphalink webspace will soon die. So, too, will my email address of warrior@ that many readers have used over the years. Yes, the warrior is dead, long live the warrior! I actually resent losing that more than anything else, and I might even be one of the last people using the alphalink.com.au domain. The company has long disappeared, being subsumed by Chariot, which in turn is under TPG. How the charges have changed too. In 1997 it was $100 per year for a 33kbps connection on dial-up for 2 hours during peak time of 6pm to 11pm (or unlimited 3-hour blocks off peak) whereas in 2017 it’s $60 per month for unlimited ADSL2. While I could keep warrior@ for a small fee each year, again, mobile devices have made gmail and yahoo far more easier to use, and consequently nearly all email has transitioned away from alphalink already.

In preparation of this process, the socceroorealm.com domain now points to the WordPress site. I could even set up warrior@ email address at that domain if I wanted. The dilemma is the full site at alphalink. The scheduled termination of my alphalink connection is 22 November. Presumably that’s when the website dies. Whether it’s reprised somewhere else, who knows. At best, it reappears on a free-hosting service, and any updates would be giant ones after each major campaign or tournament. At worst, it disappears from cyberspace altogether, and as a compromise, I will feature regular “Blasts From The Past” of old posts on the WordPress site. After all, almost twenty years of Socceroo Realm history, it can’t be forgotten completely.

Whatever happens long term, all you need to remember is one thing: socceroorealm.com. That will always get you to the Socceroo Realm. On social media it’s twitter.com/socceroorealm and facebook.com/socceroorealm. If you want to preserve anything yourself, notably the six articles over the years covering the infamous Iran Game of 1997, feel free to copy anything. Easiest is to look under the Action and Blogs section on the alphalink site. Remember, 22 November 2017 is the day it’s likely to all disappear.

Melbourne Cup 2017 – Preview and Review!

6 November 2017

With Winx such the dominant headline maker throughout the spring, the Melbourne Cup has suddenly crept up on us. There hasn’t been much thought about it – until now with the final jostling for positions in the race. On first inspection of the field, it was a case of “who” for about half the field. After a few preview shows and reading the newspaper,  suddenly the horses are like old friends and excitement is mounting.

Almandin out-lasts Heartbreak City to win the 2016 Melbourne Cup

Almandin out-lasts Heartbreak City to win the 2016 Melbourne Cup

Time for my annual selections, and hopefully they’re much better since I started posting them on this blog. Ironically they’ve been poor, even despite a few outsiders winning like Green Moon in 2012 and Prince of Penzance in 2015. My last two big wins were 2010 and 2011 with Americain and Dunaden. When I say big, I mean BIG!

Also, the Melbourne Cup is evolving. The international horses have firmly taken hold, whereas before 2010, they’d be regarded as scratchings. Even then, 2010 and 2011 were both French horses, while Protectionist in 2014 was German, so it’s fair enough to be skeptical of British horses. Even the Irish ones are in a significant drought, with Media Puzzle in 2002 the last winner. Also it’s worthwhile to be skeptical of international horses that haven’t had a preparation run in Australia. Since Vintage Crop in 1993, almost 100 first-timers have run and failed, mostly abysmally. Fifteen placings by 12 individual horses is the closest they’ve come.

Speaking of skepticism, the Caulfield Cup continues its poor guide to the Cup. Whereas once it was a pivotal guide, now it’s almost useless. The last Melbourne Cup winner to even run in it was Delta Blues in 2006, who finished third. It’s become almost a b-grade race full of horses that can’t get into the Melbourne Cup (due to proliferation of international runners), while horses targeting the Melbourne Cup don’t want to risk a penalty for winning the Caulfield Cup. Consequently organisers are removing that condition, and will raise prize money to make it a stronger stand-alone race of its own. It’s only possible value these days is noting the preparation run of any international horses.

The Field & Current Odds

1) Hartnell $26

Third last year when in much better form so easy to ignore. He’s a class horse, and they’re trying a new approach to run him fresher in the Cup, so a win wouldn’t surprise.

Result: Didn’t quite run it out last year, and in weaker form this year, was beaten a long way out. 20th

2) Almandin $9

Last year’s winner and returned to the spring with a solid win, then a poor run. Also up 5.5kg on his original handicap weight last year (4.5kg up on race weight). Repeat winners are rare so will risk it.

Result: The weight and history told. 12th

3) Humidor $10

Second to Winx in the Cox Plate and the class local horse. Running the 3200 metres is a query and he’s very temperamental and prone to over-racing. That’s enough to ignore him.

Result: Failed at distance as expected. 19th

4) Tiberian $26

The son of a “teaser”. These are horses that get mares “into the mood” before the stallion arrives to do his job. Studs give the teasers a few shots at the end of the season to keep them interested, and occasionally something is produced than can run. It would be remarkable if that could be a Melbourne Cup winner. Tiberian has solid form so I might have something “small” on him. Otherwise, as an international that hasn’t run here, better to ignore.

Result: Started a long run 1400 metres from home, cruised up heading into the straight and only battled to the line. Disappointing. 7th

5) Marmelo $8

An international than ran home well in the Caulfield Cup. That proves he’s settled in, and with his obvious class and Hugh Bowman, Australia’s best jockey on board, is one of the ones to beat.

Result: A nice run just off the lead and then could only battle to the line. Another disappointment. 9th

6) Red Cardinal $18

Last start flopped; before that great. Had he a preparation run here, he’d be favourite. Do you want to risk it? He could be the one that finally breaks the fist-timer international hoodoo. Has last year’s winning jockey Kerrin McEvoy on board. He should cope with the widest barrier of 24, having done so (if I recall accurately) in 2000 with Brew. The widest is not too bad as it gives you a choice to drop back. If you’re a few horses in, then those out wide can dictate your settling position.

Result: Got into a good position and then, like Tiberian and Marmelo, battle to the line. 11th

7) Johannes Vermeer $10

I always liked this until a few others overtook him. I might still return. Third in the Caulfield Cup if that matters and solid in previous runs, with his only doubt being untested over the distance. These days, a distance doubt is a big doubt.

Result: Sprinted clear and looked the winner to be pipped 50 metres out. The jockey said the horse was going so fast he was surprised anything else could go better. 2nd

8) Bondi Beach $61

Previous Melboune Cup runs 16th and 13th. Says it all.

Result: Failed twice before, failed again. 22nd

9) Max Dynamite $15

Second two years ago and arguably should have won. Was then injured and has only run 4 times, in low grade races, since. He’s a leap of faith.

Result: Couldn’t sprint with the other two. A fabulous effort nonetheless for such a horse light on runs and up in age. 3rd

10) Ventura Storm $34

Disappointing in the Caulfield Cup. Pass.

Result: Disappointing in the Melbourne Cup. Couldn’t run the distance and out-classed. 21st

11) Who Shot Thebarman

Scratched

12) Wicklow Brave $61

Failed last year and in poorer form.

Result: Got some money this time by sneaking into the top 10. Again it proves one of the golden Melbourne Cup rules of failed before means fail again. 10th

13) Big Duke $19

Probably out-classed.

Result: Over-achieved. Class did tell ultimately. 4th

14) US Army Ranger $61

International runner in poor recent form and no preparation run. No.

Result: Never a factor as expected. 18th

15) Boom Time $31

Caulfield Cup winner at $31. Says a lot about the horse and the race.

Result: Failed to run the trip and out-classed. 15th

16) Gallante $101

Previous Cup failure and out-classed.

Result: The first one beaten. 23rd

17) Libran $41

Seems out-classed. A place hope at absolute best.

Result: Ran well enough to grab some prize money. 8th

18) Nakeeta $34

A Scottish horse, so would be a great irony if it could win for Britain before an English horse does. Won “Britain’s Melbourne Cup” – the Ebor in York – which only rarely is a good guide to the Melbourne, and that’s when the winner wins impressively. Not this year. Nakeeta only snuck in. Because the Ebor is a handicap, it’s often regarded as a poor race and good horses generally ignore it.

Result: Ran on late after being left behind in the sprint. A good result overall. 5th

19) Single Gaze $41

A mare that stuck on well for second in the Caulfield Cup. Wary of both mares and the Caulfield Cup, so will pass.

Result: The jockey said the horse was flattened, was shuffled back four pairs than preferred, and never recovered. That’s always the fear with mares. 17th

20) Wall Of Fire $12

With unsuccessful attempts at both of his 3200 races, only a doubt at the distance here. An international that finished second in his preparation run in the Herbert Power, and drops 5kg for the Melbourne Cup. It’s the pattern Protectionist’s year in 2014, except he was German and Wall Of Fire is English. If it’s a slower pace, I can imagine Wall Of Fire sprinting clear, otherwise his run will end 200 metres out, or sooner.

Result: Even though he clearly didn’t run the trip, a bit better was expected. 16th

21) Thomas Hobson $20

An international without a preparation run and seems a plodder with recent runs up 4355 metres. These types typically get out-sprinted.

Result: From the same stable as Max Dynamite and Wicklow Brave, so the trainer definitely knows his stuff, and collectively the three horses won over $700,000 in prize money. Otherwise, he was always a plodder and got left behind in the sprint. Another 800 metres and he might just catch them. 6th

22) Rekindling $14

Another international without a preparation run, and he’s a 3yo too. They often struggle with the big field and hustle and bustle of a Melbourne Cup. In fact, many internationals do, which is why a preparation run is so important.

Rekindling (pink cap) wins the 2017 Melbourne Cup ahead of stablemate Johannes Vermeer.

Rekindling (pink cap) wins the 2017 Melbourne Cup ahead of stablemate Johannes Vermeer.

Result: Obviously coped with the big field and the weight difference to the older horses told in the end. In retrospect, with his good form in Europe and the lower weight, was obviously up there as one of the leading internationals. The problem is you don’t know. No preparation run and a 3yo, historically it means failure. 1st

23) Amelie’s Star $21

A mare that ran poorly in the Caulfied Cup. Yes, despite the heroics of Makybe Diva between 2003 and 2005, mares have a poor record in the Cup.

Result: Failed at distance and out-classed. 14th

24) Cismontane $51

Or “kiss my arse” as always hearing the name evokes. Yes, kiss my arse for its chances too. A Gai Waterhouse horse, and she’ll tell you it will win in a canter. Will most likely lead until being swamped heading into the straight.

Result: Despite being out-classsed, stuck on well enough. 13th

Summary

I’m locked into Marmelo. Although, if it fails, I’ll swear off the Caulfield Cup as any sort of a guide. Then it’s a toss up between Red Cardinal and Wall Of Fire. The former arguably has the best credentials and is an international without a preparation run, while the latter is only just behind on credentials and has a distance doubt. Red Cardinal will be at juicier odds so that most likely will sway me. In fourth I’ll stick with Johannes Vermeer. For an outsider, I’ll go Libran.

Remember, it’s only gambling if you lose!


Result

So an international horse without a preparation run in Australia wins the Melbourne Cup. It’s only the second time since the first time in 1993. Overall, it was a sterile, bland Cup. Rekindling wasn’t heavily favoured even by those “in the know”, while conspicuously quiet post race. If the second and third placed horses, Johannes Vermeer or Max Dynamite, had won, things might have been different. Without trainer Joseph O’Brien beating his father Aidan O’Brien to winning the Cup, there wasn’t even an interesting story from this year’s race. The only Cup more underwhelming than this one was 2012 with Green Moon.

Melbourne Cup 2017 Race Results

Melbourne Cup 2017 Race Results. Image: news.com.au

Despite a first-up international winning, the lesson still is to largely ignore such horses. While Max Dynamite followed his second from 2 years ago, the rest mostly failed, with the next best Nakeeta in fifth. Favoured horses such as Red Cardinal and Wall Of Fire finished 11th and 16th respectively. Each year, while one or two will race well, it’s a lottery to know the exact one. The second lesson is distance. At least half the field failed to run it out. Third lesson is class. Other than Big Duke in fourth, the outsiders ran as expected. Then there’s the Caulfield Cup. While Johannes Vermeer finished third in it, again it failed to produce the winner… nor the third placed horse, nor fourth, nor fifth… all the way up to eighth. Marmelo was the next best in ninth.

Johannes Vermeer will be one to watch next year. Near winners do have a good record the following year as they are often a bit stronger and tougher and haven’t suffered a weight penalty. Unlike the winner, in this case Almandin, which is typically penalised around 4 kgs for the following year The question for Johannes Vermeer is whether a precocious lightweight will emerge. That’s why he was beaten this year.

mc17-03a

Often the more interesting fillies are the two-legged variety. Image: news.com.au

Personally it was a wipeout. Johannes Vermeer needed to win for me as I never bet place. With the likes of Marmelo, Red Cardinal, Tiberian and Wall Of Fire all failing, all my multiples went up in flames. Oh well, there’s always next year… and the year after… and the year after!

 

Australia through to play Honduras as Ange Postecoglou shoots through

20 October 2017

Less than 12 hours after Australia beat Syria 2-1 in extra time and 3-2 on aggregate to progress to the final stage of World Cup qualifying, the nation awoke to news that coach Ange Postecoglou would quit the Socceroos at the conclusion of the campaign whether Australia qualifies for Russia 2018 or not. While he hasn’t explicitly confirmed media reports are correct, he hasn’t denied them either, saying: “My sole focus is on preparing the team for the final two qualifying matches. I will not let anything compromise the team’s journey on getting to a fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup.” The FFA echoed those sentiments, saying there’s plenty of time between the last qualifier and the World Cup “to lock in our set up as soon as possible to maximise our preparation time”.

It’s believed frustration at the growing criticism towards Postecoglou, specifically about results and the change of formation mid-campaign, is the reason for the early departure. If that’s true, it shows a remarkable weakness in resilience and a capitulation in belief of both he and the team. Not to mention it would seem completely out of character, especially for someone that boasted about playing “the Australian way” and leaving an imprint on the game. It’s almost un-Australian. Or is it?

If you consider the true Australian sports psyche, it is actually one that fails under pressure, and is notorious for quitting when things get a bit tough. Cathy Freeman denied herself an almost certain second gold medal by quitting athletics a year before the Athens Olympics, while Ian Thorpe began to experiment in other disciplines and distances, and eventually became one of our biggest sooks ever. Sound familiar? Australia’s reputed fighting style really only exists when backs are to the wall – essentially when there’s nothing to lose and there’s no pressure at all. When leading and being challenged, it will either succumb or try to escape. If escape is not possible, the coping mechanism is to try bully past the opposition, which invariably makes capitulations even worse. The debacle in swimming at the Rio Olympics is the most recent example, while the Test cricket team’s history is blotted by regular and notorious batting collapses. Now it’s Ange’s turn. It’s all suddenly a bit tough, and rather than fight it out and attempt to achieve a good result at the World Cup, it’s get out while you can. If that’s true, it will be a really sad epitaph on his coaching career.

The match itself was microcosm of the entire campaign with the task made more difficult than necessary by defensive blunders, sluggish transition between defence and attack, and wasted scoring opportunities both with final passes and shots. Syria scored after 6 minutes when Mark Milligan conceded possession in midfield, and while Australia equalised only seven minutes later thanks to Tim Cahill on the end of a sublime cross from Mathew Leckie, the game remained on a knife’s edge thanks to the odious away-goals rule. Remember, under this idiotic rule, if Australia conceded another it would mean they’d need two more before full time to avoid elimination even though it’s 3-3 on aggregate. Hardly an incentive to attack while playing at home, is it?

Despite dominating possession for large portions of the match, Australia didn’t create too many chances, much less score. It took Cahill – yes, him again – to rise in the box in the second half of extra time to head a cross from Robbie Kruse home. Naturally, that compelled Syria to desperately attack, and it was only a matter of inches that they didn’t score from a direct free kick in injury time of extra time. The ball struck the post and went wide. Poetic justice, you might say, as Australia had struck the post so many times in their previous two qualifiers. That included the final group match against Thailand, and the away leg of this series, played in neutral Malaysia, that finished 1-1. That was a fair result anyway after Syria was as good in the final 30 minutes as Australia were in the first 60 minutes. Even though Syria’s goal came from dreadful penalty call on Leckie, they really should have converted one of their numerous chances beforehand.

Tim Cahill saves Australia vs Syria - World Cup qualifier Sydney 2017-10-10

Tim Cahill – he saves Australia again (Image: AAP/News)

After a crazy final round of matches in CONCACAF, Honduras awaits Australia. USA were third on 12 points, with Panama and Honduras next on 10 points. Panama was in fourth – and the expected playoff opponent – thanks to a +5 goal difference over Panama. The final matches also favoured table positions remaining unchanged: Panama vs Costa Rica, Honduras vs Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago vs USA. USA only needed a draw to bottom team T&T to be safe or hope both Panama and Honduras lose. Instead, all three matches ended in upsets as the USA lost 2-1, Panama scored late to jump to third and qualify for their first ever World Cup, and Honduras beat Mexico to jump to fourth, leaving the USA eliminated.

Until the win over Mexico, Honduras’ only other points came from two wins against T&T and a draw against USA. While those mediocre results seem encouraging for Australia, their coach said they were unlucky through the group phase by conceding goals – and points – late in several games. Also note Honduras have qualified for the past two World Cups and the last time they played Australia at a meaningful level was at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when they won 2-1 and sent the Olyroos packing on the official first day of the Games (Australia lost 1-0 to Italy a few days prior). Countering that, Honduras lost all three games at Brazil 2014 and only managed a draw at South Africa 2010. Australia’s record is better having won and drawn in 2010 and performed really well in patches against Chile and Netherlands in 2014 despite losing all 3 matches. The teams seem well matched, and Australia is reputedly in the favoured position of playing home last. That might actually have a tangible benefit this time as Leckie and Milligan will return fresh after being suspended for the away-match due to accumulated yellow cards. Let’s hope Honduras don’t put the tie away before then.

The big concern is Ange Postecoglou. Is their still enough trust and belief within the team to play for him? Will he amend some of his stubborn tactics to ensure no soft goals are conceded? The incessant tactic to always play out from the back has made the team so predictable and easy for the opposition to apply pressure from midfield and force turnovers in dangerous areas. Syria capitalised in Sydney, and there’s no doubt the speedy Hondurans will be looking to do likewise.

The other problem is the team itself. It simply isn’t that good. It’s relying too often on a 37 year old part-time player to get it out of trouble. It’s never settled, with Postecoglou bizarrely starting Aaron Mooy on the bench at home to Syria. Thankfully Brad Smith was injured early to force Mooy on and undo the stupidity. Postecoglou seems obsessed with developing a good squad rather than a good team and possibly that’s his tacit admission of our weak playing stocks, and also his frustration that he can’t “change the landscape”, that it’s a recognition that he’s reached a limit with this team, and the team itself has reached its limit, and the system itself is too limiting for him. Win or lose against Honduras, it is the end of an era, and the Australian national team will face a restock, if not a major reboot.

Curious stat: With 48 goals, Australia has scored the most goals of any team in World Cup qualifying so far. Playing a long campaign of 20 matches no doubt helps.

The playoff is scheduled for Friday 10 November (Honduras time) and Wednesday 15 November (Australia Time).

Results

2017-10-05 Melaka: Syria 1 (Alsoma 85′ PK) – Australia 1 (Kruse 40′)
2017-10-10 Sydney: Australia 2 (Cahill 13′, 109′) – Syria 1 (Alsoma 6′)

Match Report

 

Direct Qualification – What Went Wrong?

12 September 2017

Credit where it’s due. Australia tried its absolute hardest to win by enough goals against Thailand to increase its chances to directly qualify for the World Cup in 2018. Forty five shots on goal, 26 of them from inside the penalty box, 11 shots were blocked, 3 hit the post, 16 corners and 76% possession says it all. Goals in football generally average to 1 for every seven shots, so at 45 shots, that’s at least 6 goals. Even from the 26 shots within the box, that’s almost 4 goals. Instead it was two, while Thailand managed to score 1 from their handful of decent shots, with it diverting in from the crossbar. They also had an obvious penalty denied late in the first half when scores were 0-0. It was one of those nights.

Final Table of Group B Asian World Cup Qualifying for Russia 2018

Final Table of Group B Asian World Cup Qualifying for Russia 2018

Credit also for the resilience of the Socceroos. Despite the 0-0 score at half time, Australia kept battling away. When the unthinkable happened that Thailand equalised on 82 minutes, Australia responded withing four minutes to regain the lead. The game was so reminiscent of the home leg against Canada in 1993 where Australia peppered the goals, finally broke through late in the first half, inexplicably conceded early in the second half, and salvaged a goal late to bring the tie level. Except then, Australia went on to win the penalty shootout to reach the final playoff round against Argentina. This time there still might be penalties to decide it all – after the third placed playoff against Syria and then either USA, Honduras or Panama in CONCACAF.

It was an eerie and strange feeling leaving the stadium and going home last Tuesday night. Certainly there was relief that the Socceroos snagged the win to give them some hope to qualify directly, and there was uncertainty about the future. First it was whether Saudi Arabia at home could defeat Japan in a few hours time to send Australia to the playoffs, and then the nature of the playoffs as well. As it proved, Saudi Arabia beat Japan 1-0 in a game that had saw both teams create many chances. It could have gone either way. Again, it was one of those nights. In truth, the Saudis deserved to win. Good on them too!

Since Australia’s entry into Asia, all we’ve done is taken a spot from the existing teams. It wasn’t meant to be like this, and the Middle Eastern teams have especially felt aggrieved. There were meant to be reciprocal benefits moving to Asia, not for Australia to gain a permanent and easy World Cup spot. Part of the benefit of absorbing a powerful Australia from Oceania was the expectation Asia and Oceania would be permanently linked for the playoff spot. That only lasted one cycle when Bahrain lost to New Zealand as FIFA betrayed both regions, sending Asia and Oceania into a random draw with South America and CONCACAF. For Asia to work, there’s to be mutual benefit of improving the Socceroos, other Asian teams and Asia as a whole. That also means occasionally not qualifying for the World Cup. I’ve said in the past that Australia should accept missing one in three World Cups. After two successful attempts, maybe it’s our time to miss out. Or, at least, do something no Asian team has been able to do since Australia joined Asia – qualify through the playoffs.

Invariably, the obvious question to ask following the failure to qualify directly is: What went wrong? Not that much actually. Australia won 5, drew 4 and lost one match. They had the least losses of all teams, with their only loss away to Japan. No shame in that. They accumulated 19 points, which is 4 more points than the other group’s second placed team (Korea), and only missed qualifying on goal difference. A direct comparison to the results of Japan and Saudi Arabia away to Thailand (2-0 and 3-0, respectively) would be to blame the corresponding match. Thailand were meant to be the whipping boys, and here, playing in tribute for the recent death of their king, kept Australia to 2-2. They actually should have won, running Australia ragged and missing a late chance. The crucial match for Australia was in Saudi Arabia, where Australia conceded on 79 minutes to leave with a 2-2 draw. Instead of gaining three points on the Saudis, they gained nothing. In a game that could have gone either way, they led Iraq too – until the 76th minute – to leave neutral Tehran with a draw. As for this extraordinary home match against Thailand, note that Japan and Saudi Arabia won their corresponding fixtures 4-0 and 1-0. Thailand were a reasonably tough defensive unit to crack.

Coach Ange Postecoglou naturally is facing some pressure. The switch from 4 at the back to 3 at the back after the halfway mark was criticised, most specifically by Mark Bosnich, as an unnecessary experiment. Results suggest it didn’t matter too much, with Australia scoring 10 of their 19 points in the second half of qualifying, albeit with an extra home match. More critical is some of the stubbornness – particularly some of Ange’s instructions and being lost in his greater vision at the expense of the direct mission. Most glaring at the venue was seeing the goal-keeper always – and I mean always – playing the ball out along the ground. While I can appreciate that facilitates the general possession game Postecoglou wants to aspire, it’s occasionally at the detriment of the team’s chances to quickly get forward. Often players would be clear in space after sprinting up-field ready for a long kick-out. No, it was always play it to a defender, which also made it so predictable for Thailand, who could easily press and try win possession. They nearly capitalised once, as did Japan. Often this sort of stubbornness shows a coach losing confidence or control, and trying to re-stamp authority.

Then there’s Ange’s “change the landscape” vision for football in Australia. Interestingly, previous coaches have been lambasted for being too short-sighted with their objectives. You can’t win, even if you do, as both Pim Verbeek and Holger Osieck qualified Australia directly. National teams are representative teams and, particularly for countries like Australia, the talent pool is limited. This isn’t a club where you can buy or recruit players to suit your coaching ethos and then try imprint a style over months of training and during the season, or even over multiple seasons. International teams gather a few times a year, have limited training opportunities, often have specific short term aims, so the goal is to extract the best out of those players available and the team in general. Often you might need to adjust tactics and formations to suit the players you have. No point trying to turn players into something they are not, as after the match they go back to their clubs and their natural style. When you’re quitting the national team after this campaign as Ange has already confirmed, then how can you change the landscape anyway? The next coach – if he’s a reputable, high-calibre coach of self worth and belief – will do something according to his ethos. He won’t be bending to the previous coach’s practice.

The harsh truth with this cycle is not the coach, not the method, not even many of those 45 shots against Thailand that narrowly did not score. It’s that the players are not good enough at international level. Obviously the calibre isn’t there when you compare them to names like Viduka, Kewell, Emerton, Neill and Moore of the 2006 World Cup team, it’s actually more mental than physical – unable to cope with higher pressure, both mentally and time on the ball in the cauldron of international football. Even Mark Viduka lamented it at times. Players simply don’t get that intensity at club level so often have difficulty adjusting. Even the biggest names have trouble adjusting, like Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski.

The one dynamic Australia still has is Ange Postecoglou. “In Ange we trust” – remember that when he was first hired? It still applies. We must keep trusting. He’s a proud Australian, and proud of his team. The month waiting until the first playoff series will be a time of great reflection, and a switch to the direct mission objective of winning the both playoff series. He has no choice. You can’t change the landscape if the landscapers are out of a job.

Results

2017-08-31 Saitama: Japan 2 (Takuma 41′, Yosuke 82′) – Australia 0
2017-09-05 Melbourne: Australia 2 (Juric 69′, Leckie 86′) – Thailand 1 (A-Nan 82′)

Group A Qualifiers

Iran (22 points), Korea (15 points)

Match Report

More at the AFC

Ange Postecoglou’s post-match comments:

“My position is I’m coach of the national team … I’ll see it through. The Australian football industry chewed me up and spat me out 10 years ago so this is nothing new.

“It doesn’t change my conviction of what I think is right for our game and our country and I’ll see it through.

“I love watching that team play, my team play, our team play.

“People can have their judgments of me … I won’t be pushed into the shadows of Australian football history like others.

“The style, the approach is what works for us and what will work for us.”

 

“It’s been unbelievable, it’s been magnificent and I have been sitting here frustrated for the last two years listening to some of the garbage being thrown around at these players.

“It’s tough qualifying for a World Cup, it’s even tougher when it’s your first one for a lot of these guys. We have played 10 games, lost only one, they have done everything I have asked of them. I am the one putting them out there trying to win games of football.

“It’s heartbreaking for the players. They were brilliant tonight. They had 40 plus shots and chances just didn’t go in. If we had got one a bit earlier it may have opened them up a bit.

“As the game wore on anxiety crept in, we had to take a couple more risks. They could have become deflated at each other, but they showed character and resilience to stay in the game.

“Thailand were resilient, defended desperately but OK, 45 shots, three posts, cleared off the line, if there was a more one-sided contest I don’t think I have seen it. Usually when the evidence is overwhelming you get the rewards.”

“All you need is 10 per cent to go in and you are talking about a different game.”

The Thailand Game – Preview

04 September 2017

This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Iran Game – the final World Cup qualifying match of the campaign in 1997 in which Australia conceded two second half goals to see World Cup qualification ripped from their hearts. In 2017, Australia is on a similar precipice with The Thailand Game, except there is at least a second chance via the playoffs if it all goes awry. At stake is direct qualification, and nothing short of a big win will ease concerns. Even with that, focus will turn to the match between Saudi Arabia and Japan, where the Saudis could still edge out Australia with a good win over a team that is already qualified for Russia 2018. The question is: which team will grasp the chance?

Russia 2018 - Asian World Cup Qualifying - Group B heading into the final round of matches

Group B of Asian World Cup Qualifying heading into the final round of matches

Both Australia and Saudi Arabia have let valuable points slip through the campaign, and that was the case with the last round of matches with Saudi Arabia losing 2-1 in the UAE and Australia losing 2-0 in Japan. That loss ended Australia’s unbeaten run in the campaign, albeit with 4 of the eight matches ending in a draw. The Saudis would feel more aggrieved, as they led 1-0, whereas Japan are tough at home for any team, and it’s a fixture Australia have never won. Despite hopes the Socceroos could obtain a result, it never looked likely with the team comprehensively out-played from the start. Of the handful of attempts on goal, all were speculative, and the team were exposed for its lack of ideas and attacking impetus – not to mention non-defending for Japan’s first goal. Players and coach interviewed afterwards lamented this seemingly unusual, lacklustre performance. Except, it wasn’t unusual. It’s been a problem for many years now, with this website often critical of excessive dallying on the ball and passing sideways, often into congestion, rather forward and into space.

Despite some of the complex scenarios and narrative drawn since Australia’s loss last week, the scenario is quite simple, with Australia still very much favoured to finish second in Group B. All Australia must do is get a better result vs Thailand than Saudi Arabia does vs Japan. If the Saudis lose heavily, then Australia can lose by two fewer goals. If the Saudis lose narrowly, then Australia needs a draw. If the Saudis draw, then any win is good enough for Australia. If the Saudis win, then Australia’s win must be bigger by two goals to overcome the 2 goal deficit in goal difference.

Examples: if it’s KSA-JPN 1-0, 2-1 or 3-2 for a 1 goal win, then AUS-THA must be a 3 goal win like 3-0, 4-1 or 5-2; if it’s KSA-JPN 4-1 for a 3 goal win, then AUS-THA must be 5-0, 6-1 or 7-2 for a 5 goal win.

It’s hard enough to imagine Saudi Arabia beating Japan at all, much less to win big, so realistically their largest win would be by 3 goals. Much of this will depend on the sort of team and mindset the Japanese bring to Saudi Arabia. While that fierce Japanese pride suggests they won’t roll over, being already qualified is the intangible. It could easily sap motivation, or they could play with great abandon. Conversely, Saudi Arabia at home will be either inspired by the local crowd or capitulate under the pressure.

The conundrum with The Thailand Game is that Saudi Arabia’s match is not played until several hours after Australia’s, so these “if” scenarios only apply to the Saudis. They have the luxury of knowing their minimum requirements while Australia must play as though it’s a worst case scenario and try to win 5 or 6 nil to protect itself from the any likely Saudi victory. Without such a win, it will be an eerie feeling after The Thailand Game. While it won’t be the devastation following The Iran Game, the mix of anxiety and hope after The Thailand Game will leave us bemused and curious about how we found ourselves in this position in the first place.

Confederations Cup 2017 Provides Encouragement for Vital Japan Clash

05 July 2017

Australia completed their Confederations Cup campaign in Russia with a loss, two draws, and plenty of encouragement for the crucial World Cup qualifier away to Japan on 31 August. The campaign kicked off with a 3-2 loss to Germany. It was a shocking first half, constantly exposed at the back, unable to keep the ball, clueless going forward, and lucky to be only 2-1 down at half time. Germany extended the lead to 3-1 on 48 minutes and then notably relaxed. While it’s true Australia began to assert more control and played much better, especially once they scored their second goal to bring it to 3-2 on 56 minutes, the Germans remained in general control. They dominated possession with 59%, doubled the shots on goal 18 to 9, and won more corners 4 to 1.

The second match, against Cameroon, was a more even contest, with Australia accruing more possession with 54% and Cameroon more shots and corners, 19 to 5 and 8 to 2, respectively. While both sides fluffed key chances, Cameroon had the better ones and Australia could lament the poor goal-keeping for Cameroon’s goal. Both teams would have left the field believing they should have won. The third game, against Chile, was easily Australia’s best performance for ages, not just this tournament. Needing to win by 2 goals to advance to the semi finals, they deservedly led at half time only to miss a series of decent chances early in the second half, eventually for Chile to equalise. Coach Ange Postecoglou has been experimenting with 3 at the back for the past two World Cup qualifiers, for the 4-0 loss in an exhibition match against Brazil in Melbourne, and into this competition – to obvious mixed success. It was crucial that some progress be shown to boost confidence for the final two World Cup qualifiers of this final group phase.

After the match in Japan, Australia’s final World Cup qualifier is against Thailand in Melbourne. While a win is obviously a must, ideally a draw in Japan is also required. Current situation sees Australia in third spot on goal difference (by one goal) on 16 points behind Saudi Arabia, and a point behind Japan on 17 points. Saudi Arabia will hope to win in Oman in their next match to take them to 19 points, which would leave Australia in a perilous state if they lost to Japan. Japan would be through on 20 points, with Saudi Arabia on 19 and Australia on 16 to fight for the final automatic spot.

With Saudi Arabia vs Japan the final match for those teams, a draw there would see Australia rely on the playoffs regardless of the result against Thailand, and would ruin the current promotion about the match in Melbourne as being the first decisive home qualifier since Uruguay in 2005. That’s why a draw against Japan is so crucial. The group would be wide open with Saudi Arabia on 19, Japan on 18 and Australia on 17, meaning any win would be enough against Thailand as long as Saudi Arabia don’t beat Japan. Otherwise goal difference would matter, with Australia needing at least a two goal win over Thailand.

Confederations Cup – Group B

Fisht Stadium – Sochi 19 June 2017 – 18:00 Local time
Australia 2 (Rogic 41′, Juric 56′) – Germany 3 (Stindl 5′, Draxler 44′ pk, Goretzka 48′)

Saint Petersburg Stadium – Saint Petersburg 22 June 2017 – 18:00 Local time
Cameroon 1 (Anguissa 45’+1) – Australia 1 (Milligan 60′ pk)

Spartak Stadium – Moscow 25 June 2017 – 18:00 Local time
Chile 1 (Rodriguez 67′) – Australia 1 (Troisi 42′)

 

Australia vs Iraq & UAE – Back on Course

2 April 2017

Credit where it’s due. Australia procured four precious points, as was the minimum requirement, away to Iraq and at home the United Arab Emirates this week. While the 1-1 draw in neutral Tehran against Iraq could have gone either way, the Socceroos ground UAE into submission for the win 2-0 in Sydney. It was a good response after the stunningly exciting 2-2 draw in Thailand to end 2016, where the Thais ran Australia ragged, playing inspired football in tribute to the recent death of their king, and arguably they should have won. Curiously, Australia remains the only unbeaten in the group, yet still sits in third.

The results have provided some sort of relief to a side struggling for wins, not to mention adding much more excitement to the qualifying process itself. For an ambitious team and coach, it’s been a timely boost, especially after switching to a 3-4-3 system. Remember, coach Ange Postecoglou doesn’t only want to qualify for Russia 2018, he wants to perform well there. While the 3-4-3 worked well against the UAE, often it operated as 1-2-4-3 formation. Calling it 3-4-3 is probably more a statement on the team’s psychology – to reinvigorate and inspire a more attacking and confident mentality, rather that coast as usual like the previous two coaches, Holger Osieck and Pim Verbeek, would do.

The only quibble with the results is all three goals came from corners. Several of the few well worked opportunities Australia managed to create were let down by poor final balls and finishing. Aaron Mooy missed the easiest against Iraq, while the Iraqis should have received a penalty for an Australian handball. They scored anyway a few minutes later to cancel the damage from the referee’s error. Then it was a matter of holding the Iraqis out with some desperate defense and goal-keeping.

It shows how pivotal these moments become where one moment you could be 2-0 up and it’s a cruise to victory and then suddenly it’s all equal and you’re trying to protect that crucial one point. That extends to the group process itself. After two wins from the first two games, commentators like Mark Bosnich were talking about wrapping it up quickly. Four draws later finds itself desperate for the win to simply stay in touch. Australia in third place has 13 points, behind Saudi Arabia and Japan on 16. In fact, with Saudi Arabia and Japan both winning their matches, Australia only managed to hold their position after these two games.

The real crucial game is the one against Saudi Arabia in June. A win by two goals there and Australia jumps to second. A one goal win keeps them third. Their final game is home to Thailand, so they would expect to bank 3 points there to go to 19 points. The other game is away to Japan, so no a guarantee of any points. The good news is after Australia, the Saudis are away to the UAE and home to Japan. If Australia draws with the Saudis, they will need 4 points from their final two matches and hope the Saudis lose both. A loss means Australia would need two wins and the Saudis two losses. So that game in June against Saudi Arabia is the closest thing to a high pressure, crucial World Cup qualifier we’ve had since the intercontinental playoffs during the Oceania era.

Results

2016-11-15 Thailand 2 (Dangda 20′, 57′ PK) – Australia 2 (Jedinak 9′ PK, 65′ PK)
2017-03-23 Iraq 1 (Ahmed Yaseen 76′) – Australia 1 (Leckie 39′)
2017-03-28 Australia 2 (Irvine 7′, Leckie 78′) – UAE 0

Match Report – Thailand
Match Report – Iraq
Match Report – UAE

The Scenario

Current Points and Goal Difference

JPN 16 9+
KSA 16 8+
AUS 13 5+

13 Jun 2017: AUS beat KSA 2-0, IRQ lose to JPN 0-2

JPN 19 11+
AUS 16 7+
KSA 16 6+

31 Aug 2017: JPN beat AUS 1-0; UAE draw with KSA

JPN 20 12+
KSA 17 6+
AUS 16 6+

05 Sep 2017: AUS beat THA 3-0; KSA lose to JPN 0-1

JPN 23 13+
AUS 19 9+
KSA 17 5+

Two losses and a draw are assigned to KSA for their final 3 games. Given their form, it’s quite possible they win somewhere. If it’s at the UAE, that bumps them to 19 points with goal difference probably keeping them third. If they win or draw at home to Japan, then they overtake Australia. Note, Japan will most likely be qualified by the final so could send an experimental team to Saudi Arabia.

If Australia finishes third, all is not lost. The beauty of being in a large confederation like Asia is you do get second chances, and sometimes even a third chance. This would involve a playoff with the third team from Group A (likely Uzbekistan) and then a playoff with a CONCACAF team. Wouldn’t that be exciting!