Melbourne Cup 2015 Review

4 November 2015

Normally each year you can look in hindsight and find a reason for a horse winning the Melbourne Cup, and then bash yourself for not having a few dollars on it. As wise as we so often are in hindsight, only a total loon could find the answer this year. Even Prince Of Penzance’s second place in his final preparation race 10 days before the Melbourne Cup, all that told us was there was a far superior alternative.

As much as Prince Of Penzance ran well in the Moonee Valley Cup, he was walloped into second by The United States, and in track record time. Also, the MV Cup itself, it’s been notoriously a poor guide for 25 years now. Is it any wonder “No hope” was the common conclusion given to Prince Of Penzance for the Melbourne Cup? If not explicitly, it was certainly by acquiescence. Not one single commentator or racing expert could even have Prince Of Penzance as their “rough” chance. He shared the title of rank outsider with one other horse at $101.

Why did Prince Of Penzance win the Melbourne Cup? Quite simply he was the right horse at the right time in the right Cup. Put him in most other Cups and the trainer’s best hope of a top 10 would be the most likely result – if he’s lucky.

Michelle Payne wins the 2015 Melbourne Cup on Prince Of Penzance (c) Mark Knight

Michelle Payne wins the 2015 Melbourne Cup on Prince of Penzance, becoming the first female jockey to ever win Australia’s greatest race. A beautiful depiction here by Herald-Sun cartoonist Mark Knight.

The four key reasons to Prince Of Penzance’s victory:

1) The most advantageous reason was the ridiculously slow pace of the race. On good ground, they ran 7 seconds outside the race record. They ran the last 400m in 22.6 seconds, which was a second faster than the winners of the much shorter Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate. As a sit and sprint, no horse from beyond midfield could win the race.

2) Outside 10 metres wide in the home straight, the track was soft. Even with a fast tempo, back-markers would still have been at a big disadvantage having to swoop wide. This soft ground was caused by that part of the track used for training gallops the week prior, and then it rained on the Saturday, causing the section to absorb more moisture. While it sounds like calamitous stupidity, the track managers were unlucky. There’s always practice gallops and more rain arrived than expected.

3) Several potential challengers suffered interference, notably Criterion and Gust Of Wind. Max Dynamite caused the main interference, when veering out and pushing Gust Of Wind onto a bunch of other horses. Big Orange drifted in to block Our Ivanhowe a potential run, while the minor shifting of Excess Knowledge out and Trip To Paris in combined to squeeze Criterion (briefly halting his progress), Who Shot Thebarman (already peaked on his run) and Snow Sky (already tiring).

4) Last and not least, the brilliant ride by Michelle Payne. Sitting on the fence behind Criterion and Max Dynamite, with 1000 metres to go, she elected to leave the fence and search for a run wider. By the 800 metres mark, she was outside of Max Dynamite and following the run of Trip To Paris, who sat outside Criterion for the trip. From there it was race over. Sky Hunter, who was outside TTP, tired upon entering the straight, which allowed Prince Of Penzance clear passage past TTP. Max Dynamite was still stuck behind horses, only getting clear with 250 metres to go, after checking past the heels of both TTP and POP.

What else did we learn?

The Caulfield Cup again proved a poor form race. Trip To Paris (2nd in it) finished fourth in the Melbourne Cup, Our Ivanhowe (3rd) 10th, Gust Of Wind (4th) 6th, Snow Sky (5th) 23rd and Fame Game (6th) 13th. The CC winner Mongolian Cup did not run in the MC due to illness.

The Geelong Cup continued to be a rubbish form race in recent years. Almoonqith (1st) finished 18th.

The Ascot Gold Cup (English race over 4000m) winner again failed to win the 3200m Melbourne Cup (5th). The sprint that Trip To Paris showed in the Caulfield Cup was sadly missing. He had a great run, loomed up like the winner and could not go on. He’s the one big disappointment of the race. Other Europeans that failed to sprint were Big Orange (led into the straight), Snow Sky and Quest For More.

International runners without a lead-up run in Australia mostly failed. The best result was Max Dynamite in second and Big Orange in fifth. Then you look at Bondi Beach 16th, Kingfisher 19th and Sky Hunter 22nd. It would be unfair to include Red Cadeaux, who despite not looking a winning chance, sustained an injury and did not finish the race.

Even in a slow Cup, it seems several decent chances didn’t run the trip: Preferment, Our Ivanhowe, The United States, Sky Hunter, Hartnell, Bondi Beach and Almoonqith.

Mostly it was a Cup to avoid drawing too many concrete conclusions. The slow pace and the uneven track hurt Fame Game and any other horse out wide; interference hurt Criterion, Gust Of Wind, Quest For More and Who Shot Thebarman. Others down the list including Preferment (20th) and Hokko Brave (17th) had no hope anyway despite the interference, because they were so far back.

Still a memorable Cup

Winning a few dollars is only a bonus. The real enjoyment comes from watching the race as a spectacle and enjoying the result. We got one hell of a result this year and a tremendous story with the first female jockey winning the Cup, on a $101 outsider, strapped by her adorable Down Syndrome affected brother Stevie Payne, and trained by your quintessential Australian bush trainer in Darren Weir.

Then there was also the plight of Red Cadeaux, that upon seeing his strapper run onto the track, my heart sunk expecting the worse. It halted the enjoyment of watching Michelle Payne’s celebrations on Prince Of Penzance. Thankfully it all worked out fine with the fetlock injury not life threatening, and then I could to relive the celebrations on TV recording that evening. Payne’s a class act with so much poise and professionalism, Weir so humble and likeable, and, of course, not to forget Prince Of Penzance, so brave as all the horses are, and the true hero of the day. It was victory to saviour.

Finishing Order

01. PRINCE OF PENZANCE T: Darren Weir J: Ms Michelle Payne
02. MAX DYNAMITE T: Willie Mullins J: Frankie Dettori
03. CRITERION T: David Hayes & Tom Dabernig J: Michael Walker
04. TRIP TO PARIS T: Ed Dunlop J: Tommy Berry
05. BIG ORANGE T: Michael Bell J: James Spencer
06. GUST OF WIND T: John Sargent J: Chad Schofield
07. EXCESS KNOWLEDGE T: Gai Waterhouse J: Kerrin McEvoy
08. THE OFFER T: Gai Waterhouse J: Damien Oliver
09. QUEST FOR MORE T: Roger Charlton J: Damian Lane
10. OUR IVANHOWE T: Lee & Anthony Freedman J:Ben Melham
11. WHO SHOT THEBARMAN T: Chris Waller J: Blake Shinn
12. SERTORIUS T: Jamie Edwards J: Craig Newitt
13. FAME GAME T: Yoshitada Munakata J: Zac Purton
14. THE UNITED STATES T: Robert Hickmott J: Joao Moreira
15. HARTNELL T: John O’Shea J: James McDonald
16. BONDI BEACH T: Aidan O’Brien J: Brett Prebble
17. HOKKO BRAVE T: Yasutoshi Matsunaga J: Craig Williams
18. ALMOONQITH T: David Hayes & Tom Dabernig J: Dwayne Dunn
19. KINGFISHER T: Aidan O’Brien J: Colm O’Donoghue
20. PREFERMENT T: Chris Waller J: Hugh Bowman
21. GRAND MARSHAL T: Chris Waller J: Jim Cassidy
22. SKY HUNTER T: Saeed bin Suroor J: William Buick
23. SNOW SKY T: Sir Michael Stoute J: Ryan Moore
DNF: RED CADEAUX T: Ed Dunlop J: Gerald Mosse

Melbourne Cup 2015 Preview

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Melbourne Cup 2015 Preview

2 November 2015

For apparently such a tough Melbourne Cup this year, it’s ironic that it will have one of the shortest priced favourites in recent years. Based on ratings, form, weight and conditions, Fame Game from Japan simply wins. The Japanese stayers are the best in the world, and Fame Game’s last race over 3200 was a close second to the phenomenal Gold Ship in the Tenno Sho. That was two starts back in May. The start before that was a win over 3400 metres.

Just as obvious in second place is Ireland’s Trip To Paris. Normally he’d be a disqualification by being an Ascot Gold Cup winner over 4000 metres. Typically these horses are plodders, lacking the required acceleration to win a Melbourne Cup. That was until his second in the Caulfield Cup, in which his closing sectionals were the fastest of the race. Fame Game was second fastest, which might have been fastest if not for being blocked for runs.

Either way, both Fame Game and Trip To Paris possess the other key criteria for international runners: a previous start in Australia. Both have settled in. Other than Vintage Crop in 1993, who was helped by a bog track and a rubbish field, no international has won the Cup without a lead-up run. Several have come second, including Red Cadeaux 3 times, so at best treat them as place chances.

Another irony this year is that the Caulfield Cup is the form race. Even though pundits keep saying it is, recent years it has been poor. The last CC placing to win a Melbourne Cup was Delta Blues in 2006, and the last CC runner at all to win a MC was the outsider Viewed in 2008. Because the Melbourne Cup has become so tough for lower tier locals to enter, the Caulfield Cup has become their target. Top tier locals prefer to avoid it so to avoid a penalty if winning it, while most internationals that use it are more interested in it as a preparation run, not as a target to win.

In compiling my picks, I generally try to eliminate those that either can’t or are unlikely to win. I use criteria of record over the distance, form, class and, for internationals, previous start in Australia. With the full internationalisation of the race, running the distance has become critical. Weight is not so much an issue these days given the compressed scale. It only matters now right at the bottom, that any lightweights with lower credentials will be helped, particularly if in spectacular form. Mares have a poor record overall in the race, so am generally wary of them unless they are big, strong types or are known to handle big fields. Horses that have run and failed in previous Cups are also ignored. There’s none in that category this year.

01) Snow Sky 58kg (GB)

Without Fame Game or Trip To Paris in the race, Snow Sky would be one of the favourites. He’s giving FG 1kg and TTP 3kg, both performed as good or better in the Caulfield Cup, so mathematically, he doesn’t add up. Consequently all the betting money has bypassed him for FG and TTP. He’s worth a place bet or small one for the win at the juicy odds on offer (currently $41). You just never know. He also must break the hoodoo of no British horse winning the Cup yet.

02) Criterion 57.5 (AUS)

Twenty years ago, maybe even 15 years ago, you’d be all over Criterion. He’s the class local in the race, which was often enough to win the Melbourne Cup in an era that was not the true staying test that it is now. While he’s won a derby at 2400m, he’s never tried 3200, so he’s a distance doubt. If the Cup is not too fast, he’s in it. Otherwise I expect him to run out of steam the last two hundred metres. He shapes like So You Think in 2010, which finished third.

03) Fame Game 57 (JPN)

Another reason to accept the Caulfield Cup form this year is that FG used it as a training run. It’s almost irrelevant whether it’s a strong form race. All it tells us is that FG has settled in Australia. He’s reminiscent of last year’s winner Protectionist, which ran on nicely in a lead-up race before blitzing the Cup.

04) Our Ivanhowe 56 (AUS/IMP)

International horse now trained in Australia. Third in the Caulfield Cup. He looked like the winner and then ran out of steam. Does he run the distance? His history suggests not.

05) Big Orange 55.5 (GB)

Great name! He hasn’t run here, so must risk him. He has won over the distance, so that’s a plus if you like the name.

06) Hartnell 55.5 (AUS/IMP)

Locally trained import. Distance and form doubt.

07) Hokko Brave 55.5 (JPN)

Fame Game has his measure both here and in Japan. He also hasn’t won a race in two years.

08) Max Dynamite 55 (FRA)

Another great name! Now racing in Ireland, he’s an interesting runner, being primarily a hurdler. He destroyed Trip To Paris in his previous run. That was on a bog track so there are explanations both ways. Flemington will be a good track, and with his profile as a plodding hurdler, at best he’s running on late.

09) Red Cadeaux 55 (GB)

Three times second here, including the past two years. His first run, in 2011, he was beaten by a nostril flap. Since then the distances of defeat have increased as has his age (now a European 9 year old). This year it’s a stronger field too.

10) Trip To Paris 55 (IRE)

If Fame Game fails, TTP wins. There’s nothing really between these two other than FG’s world rating is higher and he’s Japanese. Not that I’m racially stereotyping! TTP is the stablemate of Red Cadeaux, so you know the trainer can produce.

11) Who Shot Thebarman 54.5 (AUS)

Third last year and going about as well this year. It’s a stronger field, and he just failed to win in autumn’s Sydney Cup – a race of much lower standard.

12) Sky Hunter 54 (GB)

Godolphin have been trying to win for two decades. We haven’t seen him run in Australia, so can’t have him. Also doubts about the grade of races he’s been winning, and he’s a distance doubt.

13) The Offer 54 (AUS/IMP)

Would need it to bucket down, and that would be buckets of concrete dropping on the other horses. No hope.

14) Grand Marshal 53.5 (AUS/IMP)

Just beat Who Shot Thebarman in that Sydney Cup, and they ran similarly in the Caulfield Cup.

15) Preferment 53.5 (AUS)

Probably the best local hope with a delicious weight and good form. Won the VRC Derby (2500m) last spring, so would emulate Efficient (2007) and Phar Lap (1930) in completing the double. The only doubt is the distance. He’s never been tried, so go on hope and also the trainer.

16) Quest For More 53.5 (IRE)

Flopped in lead-up run in Australia. Goodbye.

17) Almoonqith 53 (AUS/IMP)

Won Geelong Cup. It’s been a good form race for good horses. Recent years they’ve avoided it, preferring to enter Australia pre-qualified and use other races for preparation. Huge doubts on the quality of the field he beat, so therefore on him.

18) Kingfisher 53 (IRE)

Apparently got travel sickness. With poor recent form at home and no lead-up run in Australia, goodbye.

19) Prince Of Penzance 53 (AUS)

No hope.

20) Bondi Beach 52.5 (IRE)

So inexperienced with just 5 career runs. Must be huge doubts he can handle the occasion; hasn’t had a lead-up run either. He was apparently bought more as 2016 Cup horse.

21) Sertorius 52.5 (AUS)

No hope.

22) The United States 52.5 (AUS/IMP)

Ran well to win the Moonee Valley Cup. It’s been a dud form reference since 1990, so doubts on class. At best, a lightweight place chance.

23) Excess Knowledge 51 (AUS)

Lexus Cup winner on Saturday. Horses need to be really good, and win dominantly, to double-up and win the Melbourne Cup. The last was Shocking in 2009. EK is no Shocking and only just won to qualify.

24) Gust Of Wind 51 (AUS)

A mare that ran on ok in the Caulfield Cup to finish fourth. An Oaks winner, so might run the distance. Most likely she won’t.


Summary

The only decision is Fame Game or Trip To Paris. FG is ridiculously short on fixed odds at $3 compared to $9 for TTP. On floating TAB odds tomorrow, he should be a bit better value with TTP a bit worse. Maybe you risk FG, split your bet or do a big quinella (FG and TTP first and second in any order). Into third I’m thinking either Preferment or Criterion so will box them with FG and TTP into a trifecta and a first-four. Others with a chance to run really well include Snow Sky, Big Orange, Max Dynamite, Red Cadeaux and The United States so will add them as the third placed horse in an exotic trifecta with FG and TPP as first or second.

Remember: It’s only gambling if you lose!

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Asia wins as Australia win the Asian Cup of 2015

01 February 2015

Match Report, Asia’s Reaction, FIFA’s Reaction and Asia’s Future

31/01 Sydney: Korea Republic 1 – Australia 2 (1-1 FT)

The Asian Cup of 2015 needed the gripping final that it got to cement itself as the greatest moment in Australian football. It’s been a marvellous tournament, with thrilling football, big crowds and seamless organisation. The fact that the entire football community could so readily engage in the competition, especially to see games live, the tournament was so friendly, and that all the teams were our fellow Asian friends, made it more enjoyable, as a whole, than recent World Cups. Winning the championship surpasses Australia’s previous best triumph on home soil of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. That was just a one-off game, whereas the Asian Cup was a proper tournament that required sustained high achievement over six games.

The final itself, just like the group game against Korea, could have gone either way. The Koreans had the three best chances of the first half, including an open header from a free kick, while Australia could only muster one decent shot on goal, that from Tim Cahill on a tight angle. Distinct from all previous opponents, Korea did not allow Australia to play its dominant possession game, pressuring high up the pitch, almost to the point Australia’s style collapsed. Australia’s opening goal, just before half time, ironically came from a deep pass direct from Trent Sainsbury to Massimo Luongo through one of very few channels the Koreans allowed. Even then, the pass needed Luongo’s deft skill to quickly turn past his marker, and then shoot quickly from 20 metres out. The “Luongoal” came out of nowhere, surprising everyone. It was fitting that Luongo, the man of the tournament, broke open the game with a stunning strike.

Korea dominated the second half, as you’d expect for a team chasing the game. They kept Australia’s defence busy as the match’s pattern became a sense of could Australia hold on. These were the critical moments of the match that ultimately caught Australia out. Even though the defence, in their defence (!), were superb, managing to repel almost everything, facts are that over an entire half, Korea would always create a few chances regardless of Australia’s defensive integrity. It ultimately became a matter of when Korea did, or whether Australia could exploit the open space available. Weaknesses in such situations were already observed in Australia’s previous two games and such profligacy would be punished against Korea. That Korea took until 91 minutes to slip a ball through for an equaliser, only made it heartbreaking for Australia, not undeserved for Korea

Reputedly, coach Ange Postecoglou told his players that extra time would be about making the Asian Cup story even better. Australia came out stronger and scored just before the end of the first period of extra time. It was a tenacious effort by Tomi Juric, who scrambled after a ball, was then doubled teamed on the goal-line, managed to flick the ball through the legs of a defender and then cross it low for James Troisi to slam home the spillage from goalie’s interception. The second period was part 2 of Korea on the press and Australia continually fluffing chances going forward. For some reason, players, when double teamed or even triple teamed, want to flick the ball through somehow. Fine if there’s no choice; terrible when you have a teammate on both wings in the clear, as was the most galling example by Juric really late in the game. 3-1 and you kill the game. Even when cramped in space, there still seems the obsession to pass it to other players tightly marked, rather than look for the obvious route out of a free play that there must be if the opposition is crowding you. This caused constant turnovers and must be the next step of Postecoglou’s development with the team. The two goals Australia scored were closer to a freak nature than of any great breakdown of the Korean defence.

The only disappointment with the final was the television coverage of the winning moment. With a camera still focused on Mathew Spiranovic after he repelled Korea’s final attack, those at home missed the moment of the referee’s whistle ending the game and missed seeing the jubilation of all the players on the field at once. Spiranovic seemed to have an eternity of coverage, then Postecoglou, then various players. Even the commentators missed the moment.

Asia’s Reaction

The Asian Football Confederation are ecstatic with this edition, with one official labelling it the best ever, and AFC president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa glowing in his endorsement: “The tournament itself has been tremendous. Filled with quality and excitement, it was a fantastic festival of football that the whole of Asia can be proud of. As such, allow me to congratulate Australia for hosting such a memorable AFC Asian Cup. The whole world was presented with a competition that has been remarkable in spirit and in passion, and we have Australia to thank for that.” The biggest endorsement and validation and has come from Australia itself. Not just with words, it came with action.

All the garbage you read about Australia being “racist”, especially when the subject of dealing with illegal immigration is raised, this tournament showed the entire world the inclusive and welcoming nature that is modern day Australia. It’s doubtful any other Asian nation could showcase such a vibrant and passionate feel that this nation did for almost every single game. Crowds at just over 650k are the third highest ever, only behind China 2004 (1.02m) and South East Asia 2007 (690k). Cricket’s World Cup starts shortly, and if you want an idea of a true “lemon” on the global sporting scene in terms of general worldwide interest, local interest and crowds, look to that.

FIFA’s Reaction

FIFA President Sepp Blatter was in town for the final and also remarked on the amazing staging of this Asian Cup. He surprised no one when he lamented that no World Cup had yet been held in Australia, saying it’s “an unfortunate omission in sporting history because very few countries boast such a rich sporting culture and long list of champions” and that “we can say with confidence that it would be more than deserved if Australia were to stage the World Cup at some point.” Empty words by a sly and sleazy politician leading an even more sly and sleazy organisation. The World Cup bid was a debacle and if Australia has learnt one big lesson, it’s that any future bid must be foremost about football. Because of the over-reliance on oval grounds, the proposal for 2022 benefitted Australian Rules the most. Also the time of year, with Qatar 2022 certain to be staged in the northern winter, FIFA must formalise a flexible schedule so that a bidding nation can showcase the sport at its best.

With both the Asian and African Cups on in January, European clubs can clearly cope with this time of year, especially when most have winter breaks. The World Cup is only an extra week over those two continental ones. Even then, once the knockout stage started, Australia revived its A-League schedule during the Asian Cup. Therefore it’s only 3 weeks, maybe four, that the few European leagues not on a winter break (name England’s) might need to shut down. One or two leagues might need to re-schedule a few matches depending on the teams in the late stage of a World Cup. Note that this would happen only once every 16 years (at worst) and if it can’t be managed, then the entire notion of “world” in the World Cup needs to be re-examined.

Asia’s Future

Some unsavoury, older, comments emerged during the week about West Asia’s discomfort with Australia in the Asian confederation. It’s quite understandable considering many of them see it as Australia taking a World Cup spot without the region gaining much else in return. West Asia probably couldn’t care that much that the Asian Cup was such a success because, again, there’s no direct benefit to them. The reality is that strong teams make other teams stronger and that wallowing within your own little construct will only keep you down. We see that manifest with most Arab nations left behind at international level because their leagues have stagnated. Of the 10 Middle Eastern teams in Australia, seven went home after the group stage, with two of the 3 survivors coming out of a group of four Middle Eastern teams.

The World Cup situation has a simple answer. Rather than reduce competition (ejecting Australia has almost zero chance anyway), or contemplate the farcical notion of splitting West Asia entirely from the rest, Asia should embrace more competition. When Australia joined Asia, the expectation was that Asia’s final spot would be a playoff with Oceania. That occurred in 2010 when Bahrain lost to New Zealand, only to be dropped for 2014 when FIFA decided the two inter-continental playoffs should be randomly drawn. Asia copped South America where Jordan lost to Uruguay. Now is the time Asia seize their destiny and guarantee a full fifth spot by bringing Oceania into the fold. It’s a joke of a region, containing only New Zealand and 10 tiny Pacific island nations. There’s a reason Australia were desperate for decades to leave. With the Asian Cup expanding to 24 teams for the 2019 edition, and an expanded qualifying path for the 2018 World Cup, it makes even more sense to add Oceania to the mix to make a broader confederation representing all of Asia and the Pacific.

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On the precipice of mission accomplished

28 January 2015

26/01 Sydney: Korea Republic 2 – Iraq 0
27/01 Newcastle: Australia 2 – United Arab Emirates 0

Another polished performance saw Australia bound into the final of the Asian Cup after defeating the UAE 2-0. An impressive Korea Republic awaits them. Both teams won their semi-finals comfortably and both look to be the two teams entering the latter stages of the tournament in the best form and in the freshest condition. The final will be a rematch of the group A encounter in which the Koreans inflicted the Socceroos only loss. Korea enters the final not only undefeated, they haven’t conceded a goal during the entire tournament. While Australia has scored far more, they have conceded two. One was the very first goal of the tournament by Kuwait, and the second the solitary goal against the Koreans.

Like the quarter final against China, the semi final against UAE was broken open by two quick goals. This time they came within the first 15 minutes of the game, rather than around half time. One was a headed corner by Trent Sainsbury and the other a mid-range shot by Jason Davidson after it pinged out from a goal mouth scramble. The goals effectively killed the match, both in the UAE’s capacity to recover, and also killed the atmosphere. At 2-0 up, Australia was only in a position to lose, and without further goals coming, there seemed little to keep the crowd interested. The UAE’s best chance came immediately after Australia’s first goal, with a shot that skimmed the post. Other than that, any encroachment into the penalty box was easily snuffed out, leaving them restricted to mostly longer range efforts.

The only blemish with Australia’s performance was, for a second successive match, the inability to consolidate a result from the many chances created. Even ignoring the referees denying several goal chances with wrong offside calls (the one against Tim Cahill when he was 2 metres in his own half was particularly ridiculous), the conversion rate must improve against the miserly Koreans.

Curiously, Sainsbury made news during the week by saying UAE’s star player Omar Abdulrahman’s laziness could be exploited: “Very tidy on the ball, not the hardest worker and I think we can exploit that”. That they did, because Abdulrahman let Davidson waft forward to ultimately score that second goal. Abdulrahman made a late rush and challenge, to no avail. Australia also kept him under control, with that early opportunity that skimmed the post the only really dangerous chance he created.

Saturday night is shaping up to be a pivotal night in Australian football. It will be the first major trophy for the men’s team (the Matildas won the 2010 Asian Cup) and even the wretched rainy weather experienced in NSW for much of the tournament has disappeared for mostly fine days leading into the big night and on the night proper. When Ange Postecoglou was appointed as coach barely more than a year ago, the clear mission was to produce a plan to maximise the chances of winning the Asian Cup. Right now, he’s on the precipice of mission accomplished.

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Australia through to the semis, Iran and Japan out

24 January 2015

Quarter Finals
21/01 Melbourne: Korea 2 – Uzbekistan 0 (AET)
21/01 Brisbane: Australia 2 – China
22/01 Canberra: Iran 3 – Iraq 3 (1-1 FT, 6-7 PK)
22/01 Sydney: Japan 1 – UAE 1 (4-5 PK)

So much for the “mother of all football games” of Australia facing Iran in the Asian Cup final, with a match against Japan in the semis before that. While both Australia and Iran did their jobs in the group phase (Australia lost their last match, Iran won theirs), neither Japan or Iran could survive the first knockout game. Iran was terribly unlucky, losing a man early through a dubious red card when leading and then responding twice in extra time to draw the game level, while Japan failed to convert their rare chances eked out against the resolute UAE defence. Both matches went to penalty shootouts that proved notable for none of the four goalies able to make a save. The shootouts were decided on the kickers missing the goal totally. So much for the nonsense that shootouts are about luck. They are 100% skill and the ultimate test of nerve. Shoot straight and you convert, always.

After a tough first half, the Socceroos breezed through 2-0 over China in their quarter final. It’s amazing that a couple of goals can transform a game so much. Despite ridiculous statistics like 288 passes to 70 and 72% possession during the first half, China had Australia well contained, and looked dangerous on the break. While coach Ange Postecoglou said the strategy was to maintain possession and tire the Chinese, it looked more like he was trying to bore them to death. The vast bulk of that possession was messing about in the back line. Too often, forward approaches often resulted in the ball passed back. When Tim Cahill broke the stalemate early in the second half, it didn’t come from open play, it came from the second phase of a corner, with a delightful bicycle kick. Whether by design or accident, the ball came off the outside of his shin for the perfect angled shot across the face of goal. Fifteen minutes later, Cahill made it 2-0, this time from a trademark header from open play. From there, with China really opening up, Australia looked dangerous, creating many chances, unfortunately converting none, which is a concern.

Superficially the quarter final results seemed a great outcome for Australia. UAE in the semi finals is supposedly easier than Japan, while it will be Iraq or Korea (who knocked out Uzbekistan) in the final. The quarter final results show that the perceived difficulty factor doesn’t always correlate with reality on the day. Japan would not sit back against Australia like UAE most likely will do, so they could allow more chances to be created. Then there’s always the notorious frail Australian sporting psyche that can see them beat top teams one match then succumb to weaker teams in the next. The bravado entering these games often sees respect for the opponent lost, bullying becomes the game plan, the match doesn’t progress as expected, pressure builds, and it’s calamity. With Postecoglou at the helm, let’s hope he keeps that reigned in.

The quarter finals of the Asian Cup have been an some turnaround for Middle Eastern teams. Of the 10 that qualified for Australia, 7 went home after the knockout stage, with two that did progress coming from a group of four Middle Eastern teams. The only east Asian team that failed in the group phase was DPR Korea. Even then, DPR Korea’s supreme leader has no doubt told his people that their current world champions have demolished their group and quarter final opponents, and are on the way to winning the Asian Cup to match their World Cup winning romp in Brazil last year. That western Asia now has half the semi finalists is some redemption for their poor results over the past two World Cup cycles that’s only seen one team (Iran for Brazil 2014) qualify. Even accounting for Australia’s presence in Asia taking a spot, Bahrain failed in a playoff against New Zealand for 2010 and former powerhouse Saudi Arabia failed to even reach the final Asian qualifying phase last time. Ideally it would be good to see one of the Middle Eastern teams in the Asian Cup final, as long as it’s not the UAE.

Iran’s Red Card

Any major tournament sees issues emerge. While the group phase progressed smoothly, even to the point of producing no draws and every group finishing with teams on 9, 6, 3 and 0 points, the major talking point of the quarter finals was the second yellow card against Iran’s Mehrdad Pooladi. The clash with the Iraqi goalie was never a yellow card, and it was only made worse by the fact the referee, Australia’s Ben Williams, forgot Pooladi was already on a yellow. The Iraqis then reminded the referee of the case, to which the red card was issued.

The big question: would the yellow have been issued had Williams remembered the first yellow? The thing is, it shouldn’t matter. Here you have referees – and they all do it – trying to finesse the laws of the games. It’s either a yellow card offence, or it isn’t. It seems Williams – as all referees do – consider previous behaviour before issuing a card and therefore do it for general insubordination – known as “accumulated fouling”. As we’ve seen, how can referees remember the little incidents from each player that support such a case? One such challenge is a verbal warning, second or third is a yellow. Clearly the referees can’t remember. Even worse, if there’s legitimate accumulated fouling by a player already on a yellow, only the final minor foul will be remembered for the second yellow, and therefore the red, which outrages all. How can you send someone off for barely a tickle? Well, that’s the outcome of finessing the law to include accumulated fouling.

If the incident was adjudicated in isolation, there’d be no yellow and therefore Iran keeps their man in a match they were dominating, and probably go on to win. The referee’s either confused the player, or forgotten that he issued a yellow for the earlier incident. It’s not Williams’ fault either. It’s the sport’s antiquated laws and the culture that thinks players can be moulded and taught to play the perfectly behaved game on the edge of the laws. They can’t, and humans, especially in ultra competitive sport, will always be prone to bend the laws as far as possible. In fact, such finessing of the laws by the referees only encourages it. Players on a yellow believe that only a more serious infraction than normal will earn a second yellow, so bend the rules further.

Time Wasting

The Asian Football Confederation promoted before the tournament “Don’t Delay Let’s Play Football”. Apparently they want 60 minutes of actual game time in each 90 minutes. While this tournament has been much better than others, it proved a farce in the Iran-Iraq quarterfinal once extra time started. The second period went for 23 minutes for about 5 minutes of play. Much of the last 10 minutes were taken by the Iranian goalie suffering a wrist injury and the bizarre medical practice of spraying every part of his body except his wrist with some sort of magic spray. Once the goalie was up and the ball back in play, time was instantly called. The first period also had many stoppages, and was stopped bang on 15 minutes. Again, you blame the sport’s antiquated laws and culture. If you want 60 minutes of game time, simply have 30 minute halves and stop the clock on every single stoppage, just like in American football. Once time is up, play is stopped once the ball becomes dead. Extra time period is 10 minutes, or even 5 minutes. Right now, 15 minute halves seem too much as players are clearly conserving energy even during regulation time to prepare for ET.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Could have won, should have won, would have won – that’s football

18 January 2015

17/01 Brisbane Stadium: Australia 0 – Korea Republic 1

Australia lost 1-0 to Korea last night in match that was provided a more resilient, stronger and lethal opponent than that of Kuwait and Oman in the first two games. Australia need this test to validate the development seen in those first two games, and to help prepare it for even tougher tasks ahead. It proved exactly a test, being a cagey game until Korea scored just after 30 minutes, then opening up in the second half in a fascinating duel between two teams not wanting to concede an inch. As Australia dominated possession, passing and shots on goal, Korea held firm and created a few chances of their own on the rebound. You could argue Korea’s goalie was brilliant, or maybe Australia unlucky to convert chances. That’s football.

James Troisi created a glorious chance for himself in the first half, shooting just wide after wrong-footing the goalie. Robbie Kruse created similarly in the second half, dribbling past a defender, only for his shot to be saved. At the other end, Mat Ryan saved point blank shot from a one-on-one break that would have seen Korea 2-0 up. It was fabulous entertainment, with the players and coach echoing the belief that the team played well enough to win, are good enough to win the tournament, and will now look forward to the quarter final against China on Thursday.

Australia started the match with a reshaped forward line, with Nathan Burns, Tomi Juric and Troisi leading the line. Juric also had at least two good chances to score himself, with one a poor first touch that saw the ball escape him, and the other from close range that went over the bar. Of those three players, he’s probably the one to just lack that bit extra to excel at international level. Burns and Troisi did well. Late in the game Tim Cahill, Kruse and Matthew Leckie were brought on to try rescue the game, remembering that a draw was enough to win the group. While their presence was notable, Korea largely contained them.

In fact, Korea really did their homework against the Socceroos, often goading them with little shoves and plenty of time wasting, hoping Australia would retaliate excessively. It worked, frustrating the Australians, and possibly contributing to Matthew Spiranovic’s rough challenge late that saw him get a second yellow card for the tournament and therefore miss the next game. Aziz Behich was almost lured into rough conduct, with the potential scuffle broken up by the referee, while you could speculate Australia lost concentration on the Korean goal. Three players were lured to the ball carrier after a throw in, creating the space for the short through-ball and low cross that was guided into the net.

Ultimately the loss meant nothing, other than pride. If you had to lose a game, this is the one, especially after playing so well and showing the team is firmly on the right track. It might even knock down any of the excessive bravado that might have been building. Despite nonsense about the perils of not winning the group, there is barely anything between the quarter final options of Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and China, so there’s also no material consequence of the loss. Before the tournament, Uzbekistan looked the strongest team; now they may not even qualify for the next phase. We now know China is our opponent, and other than sealing their group win after just two games, they, along with Saudi Arabia, have been rubbish the past few years. Playing China also means Australia stay in Brisbane, even if the negative there is substandard pitch.

The real interest because of this loss, and if Australia beats China, is Australia likely faces Japan in the semi final and Iran in the final. Amazingly, Japan is still not assured of even qualifying for the knockout phase, needing no worse than a 1 goal loss against Jordan to guarantee it. Otherwise, with Iraq likely to wipe aside the hapless Palestine, that would leave all three teams in Group D on 6 points. With head-to-head unable to split the three, it will go to goal difference. A two goal loss to Jordan and if Iraq beats Palestine by four (maybe even 3 is enough), it’s goodbye Japan. Iran plays Group C leaders the UAE on Monday night so need a win to top the group. Otherwise, it’s Australia in the semi finals, not the final. For those still traumatised by the Iran Game of 1997, the only therapy is to plan Iran again. It will happen one day. It needs to be a big one-off game on home soil. The final of the Asian Cup is the perfect time. It is our destiny.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Japan 2 – Tim Cahill 1

19 November 2014

Osaka: Japan 2 – Australia 1

As much as Australia tried, they could not match it with Japan last night’s preparation match for the 2015 Asian Cup. While the performance of the opening half looked good, the second half dominance by Japan put it into context. For all the bravado of coach Ange Postecoglou stating in the press that the Socceroos will go hard from the start and will stick to the plan throughout, Japan deferred to that strategy, allowing Australia plenty of possession and to expend much energy, before reversing the strategy for the second half and over-running a tiring Australian team.

For all the good of the first half “performance”, other than Matthew Leckie having a clear header well saved, Australia’s chances were minimal. In fact, Japan eked out slighty better ones. For all the hyperventilation over the abhorrent defending of a corner that led to Japan’s first goal, Japan quite easily could have been a goal or two up at that stage. Yes, while converting chances is the primary measure of results in football, context is even more important when talking about performance. That soft goal did not obfuscate Japan’s dominance, so if we want to mark the team on performance, forget about it. Tighter marking at corners can be easily fixed. It’s elsewhere that there are still problems.

Within seven minutes of the first goal, Japan scored a second with a glorious flick reminiscent of David Villa for Spain against Australia at the World Cup. In fact, there were many similarities with that game as to last night’s in terms of tempo and the ability of both Spain and Japan to effectively control the match despite being in deficit with possession in the respective early stages of their games. Possession is useless unless it’s used wisely, and that is still Australia’s greatest problem. Too many wayward passes and poor decisions going forward, even once defensive pressure eased in the second half. There’s also still the inability to punish teams with quick breaks from the midfield when they make errors. There’s no chance of being a crack international team without developing this part of the game.

On 73 minutes, 5 minutes after Japan’s second goal, on came Tim Cahill. He scored in the dying seconds with an open header. The stunned silence from the Japanese crowd really emphasised the insecurity fellow Asian teams have of stopping Cahill. The Japanese made it known in the press before the game that Cahill was such an aerial threat, and again it was that fear was validated. It was a strange goal, because Cahill was tightly marked by two defenders just before the cross Aziz Behich, and then suddenly found himself completely clear. More concern should be for Australia, who have not found any other avenues to goal. Cahill has scored 8 of Australia’s twelve goals during the Postecoglou. The remaining 4 were either from penalties or corners, from penalties, corners or set-pieces, with Mile Jedinak scoring three of them, and the other by Bailey Wright. It’s amazing that Cahill’s been so dangerous because, under previous coach Holger Osieck, he was so impotent in the striker’s role that the Socceroo Realm implored a return to this usual lurking midfield role.

Australia’s next match is scheduled to be Kuwait as the opening match on 9 January 2015 at the Asian Cup itself. No doubt there will be a warm-up match or two just prior to the competition that will be Australia’s final chance address its weaknesses. We need to end the romance about the supposed good performances at the World Cup and accept the liabilities. Conceding 3 goals in each game is not good, and the chances created, especially against the Netherlands, was more because of them opening the game up than great creativity by Australia. Kuwait and Oman won’t allow such amount of space, and are typically wily on the break. Korea Republic is the final game. Glimpses of improvement is the best that could be said about last night’s match against Japan. To excel at the Asian Cup, Australia need volumes.

Teams

Japan: Eiji Kawashima, Masato Morishige, Kosuke Ota, Maya Yoshida, Gotoku Sakai, Makoto Hasebe, Yasuhito Endo (Yasuyuki Konno 46’), Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki (Yohei Toyoda 77’), Keisuke Honda, Yoshinori Muto (Takashi Inui 57’)

Australia: Mat Ryan, Ivan Franjic, Alex Wilkinson, Trent Sainsbury, Aziz Behich, Mile Jedinak, Matt McKay (Tim Cahill 73’), Massimo Luongo (Mitch Nichols 63’), Robbie Kruse (Aaron Mooy 88’), Mathew Leckie, James Troisi (Mark Bresciano 63’)

Goals

Japan: Konno 61’, Okazaki 68’
Australia: Cahill 90+2’

Full site: socceroorealm.com