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

 

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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.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

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.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

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

Oman demoralised, now for the real test: Korean Republic

15 January 2015

13/01 Stadium Australia, Sydney: Oman 0 – Australia 4

As much as Australia dominated Tuesday night’s match against Oman to win 4-0, Oman hardly provided a stern test. While they looked dangerous early with a few counter attacks, the two quick Australian goals just before 30 minutes demoralised them, and they then went into damage control until the half time break. This was probably the plan from the start, that if going behind early, rather than compound the problem, the team would make adjustments at half time. Unfortunately, for Oman, the problem was compounded, conceding right on half time.

As much as Oman tried to make inroads in the second half, Australia were content on reversing the counter-attacking role, playing the waiting game against Oman and hitting them on the break. Despite numerous chances created, only one was converted – a lovely cross on the outside of the boot by Matthew Leckie for Tomi Juric to smash home. Most pleasing about the result was that four different players scored the goals, none of whom were Tim Cahill, and none of whom scored the four goals against Kuwait. Australia also finally kept a clean sheet, restricting Oman to barely a handful of chances.

The second goal of the night was the best Australian goal of the tournament so far. After receiving from Kruse, Massimo Luongo lovely first touch allowed him to lob the ball over for Kruse to continue his run through. He controlled nicely off the thigh then slammed the ball home on 30 minutes. Scoring was opened 3 minutes prior when Matt McKay scored at close range from a corner after a header towards goal from Trent Sainsbury, while the goal just before half time was a penalty converted by Mark Milligan after his goal in open play was ridiculously denied. The referee didn’t play advantage after Cahill was dragged down so it was fitting that Milligan was allowed to right the wrong.

Australia is through to the quarter finals regardless and only needs a draw to top the group. Coach Ange Postecoglou responded beautifully to a question whether he’d take it easy and just settle for a draw. “What do you think?”, was his riposte. We’re Australian, we go for the win. All good as long as you remain mindful of respecting the opposition, of which Ange seems sure to do. It’s already been the hallmark of his coaching and you see the response in the team that the arrogance and visible indignation seen in the team from, especially, the 2007 Asian Cup, long gone. Of course, it’s a different group of players now, a group beginning from a humble base, and now on a trajectory up.

Australia’s quarter final opponent is the runner-up from Group B. China has won the group already while Uzbekistan must beat Saudi Arabia to qualify in second. After that, it gets very interesting, with Iran (by winning its group) the likely semi final and Japan the final. If Iran finish second in their group, the clash with Australia would be in the final. If Australia finishes second in their group and Iran win theirs, it’s China in the quarter final, Japan in the semi final and Iran the final. In some ways, the latter scenario is the more enticing one. First, China might provide the sterner test than the Saudis or Uzbekistan, plus the Chinese fans will make for an amazing atmosphere. Second, it’s been 18 years since “The Iran Game” of 1997, so it would be nice for some form of redemption in a big one-off game. I guess if Australia loses to Korea, let’s be mischievous and revert to talking up the “performance”, rather than the “result”.

Full website: socceroorealm.com

Australia vs Kuwait: Satisfying result, good performance

10 January 2015

09/01 Melbourne Rectangular Stadium: Australia 4 – Kuwait 1

Let’s be realistic. The true measure of “performance” is the result. For all the neat inter-play and possession, it’s rubbish if you can’t defend well or create chances. Ignoring the two late goals, the first half performance was adequate at best, dire at worst, given that the Socceroos conceded too easily from a corner and didn’t create much themselves. The feeling in this lounge room last night was of anguish and frustration one minute, then jubilation and satisfaction the next. That was clearly echoed at the stadium as well, and no doubt living rooms all around the country. Why should two random events affect our senses so much? That’s because we’re not watching figure staking, where “artistic appreciation” has significant value in the performance. We’re watching a battle where skills and strategy dominates, and in that sense, the result – a dominant 4-1 win – was the metric that we judge performance, and therefore it proved a good one.

After a tough, uncompromising first 30 minutes, which included going behind so early on 8 eight minutes, Australia found the avenues to goal through quick ball movement rather than the ponderous fluffing around that has blighted the team. Kuwait easily subdued the “possession game” with two walls of defenders, and because these walls were so deep, that created huge space between the Australian last line and the Kuwaiti first wall of defence for dangerous counter-attacks. For much of the half, the strategy worked, until Australia finally worked it out by quickly getting the ball into the danger zones. Rather than trying to beat two or three opponents, just get the ball in before the defence is settled and space marked. The first goal came from a quick throw in that Massimo Luongo was able to skip between two defenders and pass to Tim Cahill, while the second was Ivan Franjic delivering a wide cross onto the head of Luongo.

With Australia leading, that really opened game in the second half, of which the Socceroos exploited. Robbie Kruse won a penalty for Mile “Mike” Jedinak to score, while James Troisi slammed home the final goal in injury time from a tight angle after bullocking work by Matthew Leckie. Between that came Leckie hitting the crossbar and Nathan Burns had two great chances: the first a skimming header that hit the bar; the second a shot straight at the goalie’s feet at close range from a Leckie cross. Leckie might have been man of the match had some of his better work had more material effect. Instead it went to Luongo, who effectively broke the game Australia’s way with the assist and then his goal. Kuwait only had two good chances in the second half: one from outside the box was touched onto the bar by Mat Ryan, while the second was easily blocked from a tight angle.

The only negative from the occasion was at 1-0 to Kuwait when one of the Kuwaiti players going down and writhing on the ground, seemingly having a seizure. Naturally, after calling on the doctors, that magical paint used for the sidelines revitalised his ravaged body and he was straight back on. While loath to accuse any such player of time wasting, surely there’s a duty of care from the sport that any player going off on a stretcher, especially one having a seizure, is given a thorough medical examination before being allowed to return to the pitch. FIFA could easily mandate such an examination, or at least a waiting period, by banning a player for 10 minutes from returning to the pitch if they call on a doctor or stretcher.

The key for Australia is to consolidate against Oman on Tuesday. While commentators cluelessly rave about the importance of getting a result in the first match, ultimately it’s menacingly if you lose the next two. There’s no double points for the first match. Even more perilous for Australia is that if both Oman and Korea beat Kuwait (accepted as the weakest team in the group), then Australia’s win is nullified, with only the goal difference having relevance. Teams mathematically can be eliminated from the group phase with two wins. Such cases see one team (ie: Kuwait) lose all their group matches, with the remaining teams recording a win and a loss against each other (ie: Oman beats Korea, Australia beats Oman, Korea beats Australia). The ideal result involving Oman and Korea today is a draw, meaning Australia beating Oman guarantees them the knockout stage. If there’s a win in the Oman-Korea game, then there’s real pressure on Australia to beat Oman, otherwise it’s do or die against Korea. Thing is, even beating Oman, Australia still might enter that Korean game with the requirement of not to lose.

Full site: socceroorealm.com