Squad Preview, Tactics and Strategy as Neill dropped

10 May 2014

The World Cup in Brazil is just 4 weeks away. In some unavoidable timing, the Socceroo Realm will be away leading into the World Cup, and will miss the preparation match on 25 May in Sydney against South Africa, and some of the build-up thereafter. Check the twitter feed on the homepage for small updates.

In place is this piece provided for a British website late last year – and now with some updates.


Lucas Neill dropped

First, the big change since the above piece was written was the retirement, either voluntarily, pre-emptively or decided for them, of several big name players, notably captain Lucas Neill. He was notified by coach Ange Postecoglou that he would not be in the World Cup squad. In the end, it was easy. With no real club form for over a year, no player can expect to be selected in that situation. With a sweeping regeneration of the team now in place, it’s almost impossible any older player will have their career extended unless there’s a really compelling reason to select them.

It’s a shame for Neill. He loved playing for Australia, and we shouldn’t begrudge any player wanting to keep playing as long as possible. While many fans wanted him out long ago, he was more a cause celebre for the broader problem of an aging and sluggish team. In truth, there were others ahead of him to go first and, more importantly, there were no younger replacements ready to step up and take his place. He still is among our best defenders even at this stage of his career. As recently as the final few World Cup qualifiers, his return as part of a settled and experienced defensive unit was integral to Australia qualifying. Ultimately, if fans don’t like that certain players are in the team, the coach should be the target of blame and criticism, not the player.

Thankfully, as often the case, bitterness has been swallowed, and the tributes flowing. Ange at least allowed him to equal the Australian record of most caps as captain with Peter Wilson at 61. Wilson captained Australia at the 1974 World Cup, while Neill had the role in 2006 and 2010. Does that make Neill Australia’s best captain ever? It’s a bit abstract and difficult to calculate. How does leadership add or diminish your general performance? Raw statistics say yes. So do raw results. He’s certainly our best defender ever, and with Craig Moore our best defensive pair. Overall, the trio of Milan Ivanovic, Mehmet Durakovic and Alex Tobin – as part of a sweeper system in the 90s – would trump them as our best ever defensive unit.

Had Neill had been playing regularly at club level, and at a decent club, he’d have been a worthy addition to the World Cup squad, at least as a squad player. At the very least, his experience would have been invaluable. At best, he’d have been a steady hand in case the youngsters did capitulate badly. Unlike Mark Schwarzer, Neill didn’t cut and run either. It was never an option to decide he won’t play for Australia. It was the highest honour and he fought it out. Isn’t that the Australian spirit we all love to see?

The other retiree was Brett Holman. He announced it a week before Neill got the call from Ange, stating he’ll concentrate on his club career in the Middle East and his young family. Unlike Neill, a much less of a concern. The rare spectacular goal never compensated for his erratic passing, running and shooting. Ange obviously told Holman that time was up, so Holman did the honourable thing like Schwarzer to “retire”, rather than be retired.


December 2013

Squad Preview, Tactics and Strategy

** Defence **

Australia’s defence, much like the rest of the team, is in a state of transition. Under a reign of two Dutch coaches including Guus Hiddinck and Pim Verbeek, and then under German Holger Osieck, Australia has deployed a back four of two central stoppers and two attacking full-backs, with those full-backs typically converted wide midfielders. The result has been defensive frailities at the highest level, such as the past two World Cups, where the team was unable to produce a clean sheet in any of its seven games. At the lower level in the Asian region, they haven’t been exposed as much and, indeed, allowed the team to escape difficult situations during World Cup qualifiers, and even during those World Cups, notably against Japan and Croatia in 2006, and Serbia in 2010.

After two 6-0 embarrassments against Brazil and France in recent friendlies, and after stuttering through the World Cup qualifiers, Osieck was replaced by the local Ange Postecoglou. His first change is to deploy specialist defenders, with attacking capabilities, in those wide postings. His one and only game so far, a 1-0 victory in a friendly against Costa Rica in Sydney, produced an accomplished defensive display without losing anything going forward. By no means a conservative coach, Postecoglou has instantly recognised that the pillars of excelling at the World Cup, especially against such group opponents of Spain, Netherlands and Chile, will be on the back of a solid defence. Australia’s next match is not until March, so with such little opportunities to experiment, Postecoglou will be staking the success of his defence on his double-championship experience as coach of Brisbane Roar in the domestic A-League.

Lucas Neill is the highest profile defender after a long career in the English Premier League with Blackburn and West Ham. Now in Japan and with an Australian record of 61 caps as captain, he’s the talismanic focus in the nation’s dispute over the team’s lack of regeneration since the last World Cup. On one hand he is older and slower, on the other there’s no one behind to push him out. With Postecoglou likely to model the remainder of defence around integrating newer players, chances are Neill will be retained for his invaluable experience to marshal the likes of Rhys Williams, Jason Davidson, Ryan McGowan, Ivan Franjic and Alex Wilkinson, all of which play in lower profile European teams, Korea and the A-League.

Goal-keeping will be in the hands of novices on the world stage after the sensational retirement of Mark Schwarzer on the even of the match against Costa Rica. With a long career in the EPL with the likes of Middlesborough and Fulham, Schwarzer moved to Chelsea in the summer as a reserve goal-keeper to potentially be part of a trophy winning squad. Perhaps pre-empting his fate of being dropped from the national team, he undertook the decision himself to go on his terms. Postecoglou has made it clear that players won’t be picked if not playing regular first team football. Schwarzer’s decision is a pity because, with two World Cups behind him, the likes of Matt Ryan (Club Brugge, Belgium) and Mitch Langerak (Borussia Dortmund) would greatly benefit from his guidance. As it stands, Ryan, who started against Costa Rica, will be favourite to assume the number one role given his excellent and consistent form for his club.

Update

With Neill gone, Curtis Good of Dundee Utd was Ange’s next pick. He played well enough against Ecuador is likely to gain a starting role in Brazil. Matthew Spiranovic of Western Sydney is likely, while Brisbane’s Ivan Franji as sewn up a position out wide. Matt Ryan has sewn up the number one goal keeper’s spot.

** Midfield **

As with the defence, new coach Ange Postecoglou will revert to playing players in their position of strength, rather than fit players into unnatural positions simply to have them on the park, as was the case under the previous two coaches of Holger Osieck and Pim Verbeek. The key issue he will face is of who to leave out. Tim Cahill was the most notorious example of the old policy, often thrown forward as a striker, to allow for one of the abundance of midfield options to get a spot. That had a detrimental to both his and the team’s goal scoring power.

In Postecoglou’s one and only game so far, a friendly against Costa Rica, Cahill was used as a substitute to allow the coach a look at fringe players. More likely he’ll resume his classic and most dangerous position of a box-to-box midfielder in which he excelled at Everton in the EPL for 8 years and in which he was scoring a goal every two games for Australia, including Australia’s first ever World Cup goals, against Japan in 2006. Now at New York in the MLS, he’s come off a successful year with 12 goals from 39 games.

Robbie Kruse, at Bayern Leverkusen, is playing at the highest club level of any Australian. With his speed and skill and marauding striking ability, he’s the other key attacking component out of midfield. He’ll operate on the right, while Tom Oar from FC Utrect will offer a similar outlet on the left. Central midfield options are the aging Mark Bresciano, a stalwart of Italy’s Serie A and now in Qatar, the aforementioned Tim Cahill, and Celtic’s Tom Rogic. Rogic is seen as the future of Australian football with his skilful dribbling and deft passing. He’ll definitely gain game time, most likely as a substitute.

Recent Australian teams have played with two defensive midfielders with Mile Jedinak (captain at Crystal Palace) and Mark Milligan (captain at the A-League’s biggest club, Melbourne Victory). Both are adept at going forward, while Milligan’s outstanding defensive awareness could see him operate in front of the defensive line alone if required. Matt McKay of Brisbane Roar is adaptable to various midfield positions, and was integral in his club’s double-championship success under the helm of Postecoglou as coach. The formation and selections will depend on how much Spain and Netherlands temper Postecoglou’s attack minded tendencies. Indications so far is that he won’t be shirking the challenge.

Update

Robbie Kruse tore an anterior cruciate in his knee earlier this year and is out of the World Cup. Tom Rogic is still too raw so unlikely to get a starting birth. Massimo Luongo of Swindon Town and Oliver Bozanic are likely to gain roles now.

** Attack **

Australia’s one key striker at present is Joshua Kennedy of Nagoya Grampus. With 17 goals from 33 games, his aerial prowess has come to the fore many times, most notably in the pivotal 1-0 win over Iraq to qualify Australia for Brazil 2014. Coming on late as a substitute for Tim Cahill, Kennedy scored in the 83th minute to ease a nation’s nerves. Kennedy was part of a trend during the last three qualifiers that saw Australia score 5 of its six goals from actual strikers. Bizarre as that may sound, with Kennedy often injured and with coach of the time Holger Osieck loath to explore other options, the pattern through the qualifiers was to use one of the bevy of attacking midfielders as a striker. It didn’t work, resulting in a stodgy qualifying process.

As with the midfield and defence, new coach Ange Postecoglou is looking to play players in their positions of strength. Kennedy is back and will be integral to the team, especially with his height. It could be imagined he’ll start against Chile, and then used as an impact player against Netherlands and Spain. The recurring issue is fitting Cahill in the team with Kennedy. Historically, the team easily became too enamoured with a game of long balls and early crosses if both were present. Osieck’s solution was to drop Kennedy. In Postecoglou’s only game so far, a 1-0 win in a friendly over Costa Rica, he also kept Kennedy and Cahill apart. That could be more out of experiment to try other players, more than a guide to his future plans.

Charged with also looking for the next generation of Australian strikers, Mathew Leckie of FSV Frankfurt lead the line against Costa Rica, supported by Dario Vidosic of FC Sion, and Robbie Kruse. All performed satisfactorily. One exciting name on the horizon is Mitchell Duke from Central Coast Mariners in the A-League. He excelled at 2013 East Asia Cup and was in the recent squad to face Brazil. Tomi Juric of Western Sydney Wanderers is also another potential inclusion. Two players unlikely to be seen are veterans Harry Kewell and Archie Thompson. Kewell has long slipped off the radar and is struggling to recapture anywhere near the form he once had when marauding for Leeds in the EPL, while Thompson – the world record holder of 13 goals in an international match – simply lacks the composure at the highest international level.

Update

Kennedy is the mystery and is seemingly out of fashion as an out and out striker. He’ll certainly be going to Brazil and most likely used off the bench. Kewell retired at the end of the A-League season and Thompson is long past his best – not that his best was ever good enough at top international level. Leckie looks to have sewn up the main striker’s role, with the likes of Cahill and Vidosic in support.

** Tactics **

Australia’s coach Ange Postecoglou has vowed that he won’t be intimidated by his group opponents of Chile, Netherlands and Spain, and eagerly looks forward to the challenge to create some of the biggest upsets in World Cup football. With two stunning championships in the A-League with Brisbane Roar, and then a similar remodelling with Melbourne Victory until he was recruited by Football Australia to replace Holger Osieck – sacked in October after embarrassing 6-0 losses in friendlies to Brazil and France.

Postecoglou brought an attacking, possession based passing game to Brisbane that made full width of the pitch, the hallmark of which was an unnerving penchant of delivering results late in games, notably both Grand Final victories, and setting an Australian record of 36 undefeated club matches for any football code. At Melbourne Victory, tweaks were made to deliver a more counter-punching style. Elements of both will be seen in the national team, plus potentially a surprise or two given the acclaim generated of Postecoglou’s tactical nous.

Ostensibly the formation will be 4-2-3-1, possibly 4-1-4-1 given the status of match. The central striker can often drop a little deeper to allow the two wide attackers to penetrate the last line, essentially switching the formation to a 4-1-3-2. Speed will be the key ingredient along with support from deeper midfield. Defensive integrity will be maintained by the actual use of specialist defenders in the back four, rather than converted midfielders that saw Australia fail to keep a clean sheet in all its seven games of the previous two World Cups.

Australia’s big challenge – and essentially the one that devoured Osieck’s credibility – is adapting from being the hunter in the Asian region, to hunted at World Cup level. Asian opposition often sat back to force Australia to make the running, allowing the luxury of converted wide midfielders in full-back positions. While no doubt Postecoglou will look for periods to pressure the opposition with length possession, the reality is that a sound defence will be the cornerstone of progressing to the next phase.

Can Australia make it? Oddly, Spain in their group is a huge favour – just as long as Spain defeats all the teams. That clears the race for second sport, whereby one win could see a team progress. If all other matches are draws, then just two points is enough, with the team with narrowest loss to Spain the team to finish second. That scenario is rare, so given that Spain does dominate the group, Australia will hope to snag one win and a draw. If Chile vs Netherlands is a draw, then the one win will be enough.

The key will be not to lose to Chile, then back it up with a good result against Holland. Failing that, the last match against a potentially already qualified Spain, Australia will have nothing to lose.

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Squad for Ecuador – Out with the old, in with the new

26 February 2014

Out: Lucas Neill, Mark Bresciano, Brett Holman

In: Curtis Good, Massimo Luongo, Ben Halloran and – finally – Chris Herd

These are the highlights of coach Ange Postecoglou’s squad for the World Cup preparation match against Ecuador next week. Also notable is Brett Holman bypassed again, while Luke Wilkshire returns for his first shot under the gaze of the new coach. It seems Ange has ignored anyone playing in those rubbish Middle Eastern leagues. Other than being over-rated after a couple of spectacular goals, Holman is the victim of that, and so too Alex Brosque. Sasa Ognenovski recently signed for Sydney FC, recognising the low regard Ange rightfully has for the Middle East. He misses out after not playing much recently, as does Mark Bresciano, who’s suspended after an illegal transfer involving his club. If Ange is consistent, Bresciano is gone anyway, as he’s another playing his club football in the Middle East.

Of the newbies, only Chris Herd is a recognised name to these eyes. Ange’s recent weeks scouting in Europe has paid dividends. As much as there is a desire by fans to rejuvenate the Socceroos, there is a dearth of talent coming through. The much maligned Lucas Neill, who just signed for Watford in England’s second tier after months in limbo, should get a plane ticket to Brazil. The reality is eight defenders are required for the World Cup squad and, shockingly, it’s doubtful Australia has one better defender than Neill, much less eight. At best, one or two might be level, and then you still need to decide whether to trade youth for experience. This is a World Cup, and we go for results, not experiments. Players like North, Thwaite and Kisnorbo, have been tried, and failed. Ange overlooked them. While Spiranovic and Davidson get another go, and must perform. Spiranovic has been unable to own one of the two central defender’s spots as many believed was his destiny, while Davidson has hardly been reassuring in his handful of games.

The most shocking aspect of the squad is no recognised strikers. Leckie and Vidosic are more attacking midfielders, while surely it’s time Cahill is returned to his most successful and damaging role as a box-to-box midfielder. No Joshua Kennedy here, which may mean nothing, as his abilities are known and is surely a certainty for Brazil as one of four strikers, especially with Robbie Kruse’s knee injury leaving a big hole in Australia’s striking ranks. Dare it be suggested that a certain Scott McDonald might have deserved another look? At least to be played in a system that suits him, not as the solo marksman under previous coaches.

Postecoglou reiterated that this is mostly an experimental squad, and that the door is still open for anyone overlooked. Good news for the sake of Sasa Ognenovski, who has done very little wrong in Australian colours, and will be important to shore up an inexperienced defence should Neill be axed. Good news for another veteran destined to play in his third World Cup: Harry Kewell. Much more will be known after the match. Suffice to say, anyone that doesn’t get a meaningful run, is gone.

Comments – Ange Postecoglou

The squad to face Ecuador represents the first steps in what I believe is the building of the next golden generation for Australian football acknowledging there is a need to balance experimentation and experience to achieve this. The match gives this group of players an opportunity to stake a claim for the World Cup. They have been rewarded for playing consistent and strong football and shows that age and limited international experience are not barriers to opportunity. I was encouraged by what I saw on my scouting trip and what I’ve been watching in the A-League and other parts of the world and I’m confident that with courage and belief we can face the challenges ahead and not waver from our long term plan.

Ecuador is a very important game for us. It’s the last game (before World Cup squad selection) and it’s a quality opponent. Ecuador made the World Cup and it will be a tough challenge for us. We started our journey against Costa Rica and we want to build on that. It was a solid performance and the players backing up from that game would already have had a taste of what we are trying to achieve. For the new ones it’s about getting as much information as possible. We’ve done a lot of work in between the Costa Rica game and now with analysis of our own performance and analysis of our opponents and they’ll get a lot of information in those two or three days and I’m certainly looking for a strong performance against Ecuador so we continue to build on the positive feeling we had after the Costa Rica game.

Selection in the final squad for the World Cup is still very much an open door. There were quite a few players, particularly those in Asia whose leagues are just beginning, who are still very much on the radar. There are also a few players who are very much a part of my thinking and plans for the World Cup who are not playing and I was pretty mindful of not calling anyone who was not going to play some significant game time. Their club form going forward will be a big indicator of that and players still have an opportunity to get back into the squad.

Oliver BOZANIC (FC Luzern, SWITZERLAND)
Tim CAHILL (New York Red Bulls, USA)
Jason DAVIDSON (SC Heracles Almelo, NETHERLANDS)
Ivan FRANJIC (Brisbane Roar FC, AUSTRALIA)
Curtis GOOD (Dundee United FC, SCOTLAND)
Ben HALLORAN (Fortuna Dusseldorf, GERMANY)
Chris HERD (Aston Villa FC, ENGLAND)
James HOLLAND (FK Austria Vienna, AUSTRIA)
Mile JEDINAK (Crystal Palace FC, ENGLAND)
Brad JONES (GK) (Liverpool FC, ENGLAND)
Mitchell LANGERAK (GK) (B.V. Borussia 09 Dortmund, GERMANY)
Matthew LECKIE (FSV Frankfurt 1899, GERMANY)
Massimo LUONGO (Swindon Town FC, ENGLAND)
Ryan MCGOWAN (Shandong Luneng Taishan FC, CHINA)
Matthew MCKAY (Brisbane Roar FC, AUSTRALIA)
Mark MILLIGAN (Melbourne Victory FC, AUSTRALIA)
Tommy OAR (FC Utrecht, HOLLAND)
Tommy ROGIC (Melbourne Victory FC, AUSTRALIA)
Matt RYAN (GK) (Club Brugge KV, BELGIUM)
Adam SAROTA (FC Utrecht, HOLLAND)
Matthew SPIRANOVIC (Western Sydney Wanderers FC, AUSTRALIA)
Dario VIDOSIC (FC Sion, SWITZERLAND)
Luke WILKSHIRE (FK Dinamo Moscow, RUSSIA)

Australia 1 – Lucas Neill 0. Ange wins on debut, Neill oversteps the mark.

20 November 2013, 1930 AET

Sydney, 19 Nov: Australia 1 – Costa Rica 0

After the 6-0 debacles against Brazil and France, new Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou brought balance to the force with a determined 1-0 win over Costa Rica last night. It wasn’t so much that Ange gained a much deserved win on his debut, especially against a weakened opposition that barely troubled the Australian goal, it was the he addressed key problems identified within the team over as much as eight years ago. Namely, the team using players out of position, which was brought to its abrupt head with some ridiculous placements by Holger Osieck in those aforementioned games. Second, newer players in the team were given a chance. A real chance.

It’s been a constant bugbear of the Socceroo Realm that players are made to fit into unnatural positions. It might be fine for nations like Spain or Brazil who can slot a midfielder as right back or striker and get away with it due to the natural supremacy of the team and players; it’s not for Australia and its weak pool of quality players that are diminished further if not allowed to play to their strengths.

Ange’s first step was to put legitimate wide backs like Ivan Franjic and Jason Davidson in those slots, not the likes of Wilkshire, Carney, McKay and, even as far back, as Chipperfield. Defence is the priority in these slots, with attack the bonus. Not vice versa. The goals Australia has conceded over the years has come from these wide positions being exploited. Then there was the absurd habit of not playing actual strikers, which started with Pim Verbeek playing Tim Cahill forward away to Japan in a qualifier, then manifested into the debacle against Germany in South Africa, and finally Holger’s stagnant attacking plans. It was so pleasing to see the likes of Leckie, Kruse and Vidosic leading the line, not the likes of Cahill and Holman befuddled in a state of flux between their instinctive midfield mindset and the need to pressure the last line and create goals.

Just as pleasing was seeing the new players get a real chance. They weren’t thrown on at the end for a few cheap minutes with the game in disarray as it usually is given the spate of substitutions in these practice games; Leckie, Vidosic, McGowan, Davidson and Franjic were there from the start. It was especially noticeable when seeing on the bench were the likes of Cahill, Kennedy, McKay and Oar. They all came on later in the second half, with Cahill scoring the winning goal from a corner on 69 minutes. The net result of players in position and players allowed a chance to play was a sound defensive display and a competent passing game. While it’s difficult to rate the game much more than a reasonable effort, to be factored in is the legacy of the old era. There was still a bit too much stuffing around, plenty of poor decisions with passing options, and final balls were often woeful. This will improve.

Much of the spotlight after the game was taken by Lucas Neill’s reaction to the crowd booing him whenever he got a touch, to which he snapped later in the game and seemed to yell “why the f**k are you booing”. In post-match comments he was aggrieved at the lack of respect for the national team and anyone playing it…

“I’m an Australian, playing in Australia for Australia, getting booed by an Australian. There’s no place for that. I think it was a case of maybe a bit too much courage juice towards the end of the game. It was just isolated moments – every time I touched the ball, so I knew it was directed at me. It’s detrimental to the team. But let’s just focus on the more positives, and that was we were one-nil up, we were having a fantastic game, we were winning the game, we were playing really well for Australia and Ange Postecoglou gets off to a great start. So that .01 per cent has just tarnished it slightly.”

While he might have a point in a broader sense, there’s no doubt the actions were personally motivated. He’s been subjected to speculated for the entire week in camp, and unfairly so, as he’s also contended. If there’s one mistake that Ange has made is that he didn’t quash all the innuendo. First, he should have said the captaincy is vacant and will always be vacant before each match or tournament. He picks the team, then the captain, the captaincy is a temporary honour, not a permanent title. Second, he should have reiterated to the fans that all spots within the team are vacant and he’ll pick players on merit and that if he decides to pick Neill, the invective towards Neill should be thrown aside, and the team and all players allowed the dignity and respect to play their best for Australia.

Neill’s problem is that his reaction was daft and excessive. No one in Australian national colours should be swearing at anyone, much less the crowd. He should have blown a kiss or grinned or done something jovial, or even ignore it, not fuel their intent and satiate their feral instinct. The crowd pay their money and have every right to boo or hiss, so expecting them to adhere to a player’s wishes of behaviour is nonsense. Sport is also theatre and even pantomime, so crowd interaction is integral. All Neill needs to do is do his job. Brett Holman was maligned far worse than Neill and after a couple of goals at the World Cup becomes a national darling. Fans are notoriously fickle. A goal saving tackle that sees Australia win a match in Brazil and suddenly he’s a national hero.

Neill tweeted: “Thanks for all your support. We are all proud Aussies so let’s enjoy the ride together!! #GoSocceroos”. It is time we started to rally behind the team. The coach has been changed, and we’re now on the final trajectory towards Brazil that will not be altered. We either have faith, or just don’t bother being interested.

Result

AUSTRALIA 1 (Tim Cahill 69m) – COSTA RICA 0 at Sydney Football Stadium. Crowd: 20,165. Referee: Hiroyoshi Takayama of Japan.

Starting XI

Matthew Ryan, Lucas Neill, Rhys Williams, Jason Davidson, Ivan Franjic, Mark Milligan, Robbie Kruse, Mile Jedinak, Mark Bresciano, Dario Vidosic, Matthew Leckie

Substitutions

Ryan McGowan for Rhys Williams (48′), Tim Cahill for Matthew Leckie (52′), Thomas Oar for Dario Vidosic (61′), Tomas Rogic for Mark Bresciano (61′), Matt McKay for Mark Milligan (77′), Joshua Kennedy for Robbie Kruse (77′)

http://www.footballaustralia.com.au/socceroos/matchcentre/Socceroos-v-Costa-Rica-Intl-Friendly-(M)/3632

So much hysteria from losing to Brazil… in Brazil?

Brasilia, 07/09/13 : Brazil 6 – Australia 0

Aren’t we all being a little hysterical? We wanted to compare ourselves with best in the world, and quickly found we were too slow on the ball, poorly organised, and simply out-gunned. Instead of accepting this reality and learning from it, within hours of the 6-0 loss to Brazilthe calls are out – most notably and stridently from Les Murray at theworldgame website – to sack coach Holger Osieck. Is it only last June that Australia qualified for the World Cup with a gritty determination over two potentially sudden death games like we come to expect? What has changed since then? One “friendly”, against Brazil, played in Brazil. Wow, what a measuring stick! Forget the real accomplishment of World Cup qualification, now the barometer is a match against a super-power of the sport, in their own backyard, and of the type of match more commonly known for its farcical commitment and wanton experimentation. To Brazil’s credit, they put out a full strength team, and really made a spectacle of it on their national independence day. They’ve also come off winning the Confederations Cup that included hammering world champions Spain in the final, and other friendly matches including a 3-0 drubbing of France. Clearly approaching top gear for their home World Cup next year.

In contrast, most of Australia’s players are in off season or just emerging from it. More than that, affecting the team most, as Osieck did allude in his post-match, our team has just been playing 18 months of grinding World Cup qualifiers. Now they were hit with a culture shock. It’s totally different football from Asia where Australia were doing the pressuring and had plenty of time on the ball, to then playing Brazil and the entire situation is reversed. They didn’t cope. One more reminder: this is Brazil. Five-time world champions. They just beat Spain 3-0 in the Confederations Cup final. We’ve yet to even qualify for five World Cups, much less think about winning, or qualified for a Confederations Cup at all in our time in Asia. Who do we think we are? We’re still a third world team when it comes to the crunch, and kidding ourselves that we believe we can constantly mix it with these teams.

The more important point raised by the likes of Murray is about some of the team selections. Murray questioned why Tom Rogic didn’t start ahead of Brett Holman rather than replace him as substitute. Maybe if the entire country had not been so seduced by Holman cracking a nice goal every three years he’d not be in the team at all. His situation playing club football in the Middle East exemplifies the entire team’s problem: the football there just isn’t the right tempo. Maybe it is for playing fellow Asian teams, it’s not against crack South American and European teams. Arab nations have shown this flaw themselves on the World stage, being easily pushed around and unable to combat the speed. Now Australia is showing signs. Brazil pounced upon Holman’s lazy pass to score their second; in the Middle East it goes unpunished. It’s a dangerous trend long term if more and more players are there, that Australia could become the Saudia Arabia of the south. Robbie Slater is effusive that we don’t pick players in these leagues. Personally, no exceptions. Marco Bresciano, Alex Brosque, Holman, goodbye. Top teams from Australia’s state leagues wouldn’t be any worse than those Arab clubs, and we would never select from there.

Sacking Holger is not the answer. ALL our recent coaches, including the much vaunted Guus Hiddinck himself, were loath to scope much below the top echelon of older, experience players. So why would any other coach?  To think the FFA would even hire a coach based on  “play youth only, we don’t care if you miss the World Cup”, it’s laughable. No serious coach would accept that, nor would fans tolerate it if they just thought about it for one second instead of becoming hysterical over a loss to Brazil.

The goal still is to perform well at the World Cup and be realistic about our exceptions, not fool around trying younger players and believing that’s the magical solution. We just did an entire experiment at the EAFF Cup finals and none other than Mitchell Duke emerged. The answer now is to target high quality opponents in future international matches (no Asian opponents) and give the team its chance to adjust. Next month is France, so that will be a nice measure. Remember, Australia beat Germany in Germany not so long ago, and if there’s one thing we know about football, momentum – and attitude – can change quickly.

Jordan gone, Iraq gone – A one-two punch and suddenly it’s easy

Melbourne: Australia 4 – Jordan 0

In just over one week Australian football fans have gone from despair about qualifying to pre-emptive celebration. The first punch was knocking out Jordan in this most defining of games – at Melbourne’s Docklands last night. It was the most pivotal and emotionally intense game probably since the Iran Game in 1997, given the high hopes and feverish anticipation of success that both games shared. The second punch came later in the night when Japan knocked out Iraq 1-0 in Doha.

Played, Points & GD
Jap 8, 17, +11
Aus 7, 10, 4
Oma 7, 9, -2
Jor 7, 7, -10
Irq 7, 5, -3

Schedule
18/06 Aus v Iraq; Jor v Oma

Next week’s equation is now simple: Australia must beat Iraq in Sydney only if Oman wins in Jordan. Any lesser result by Oman, Australia has already qualified for Brazil. Of course, with Australia playing several hours prior to Oman’s game, Australia has no choice than to seek a win. It’s just that there’s that comforting factor that a loss or draw means a late night vigil of the other game, cheering for Jordan to knock out Oman. With Jordan needing to win to make the third-placed playoff – and given their strong home form already with wins over Australia and Japan – Oman’s hopes seem low. Conversely, with Iraq knocked out from even a playoff spot and potentially coming to Australia as a totally deflated opponent, Australia’s hopes could not be higher coming into any live game.

The key to next week’s game will be an early goal. Arab teams seem to be weak mentally against non-Arab teams, easily capitulating if the game doesn’t go their way, just as Jordan fell apart last night. Hoping for a draw, they left the half time break at 1-0 and putting Australia under extreme pressure. To say there was a deja vu of that Iran Game is not an understatement. The entire stadium grew restless, frustrated at the reverse in dominance and also of so many missed chances had left the game finely balanced at 1-0. Unlike Terry Venables, coach in 1997, Holger Osieck did react to the parlous state of play, bringing on an actual striker, Archie Thompson. Within 30 seconds, he picked up the ball, charged the defence, passed off, dragged two defenders towards his run, and next thing you know the ball is in the net. Robbie Kruse was able to find Tim Cahill in plenty of space for a headed goal. From there, Kruse scored himself after a neat turn, while Lucas Neill scored his first Socceroos goal after heading from a corner scramble. It was his 91st game. All that Jordan could manage was substituting their goalkeeper late in the game, fearing another yellow card against him, as he constantly berated the referee in frustration. To say he was throwing in the towel, he literally did as he exited the field straight to the dressing room.

This was the first time this campaign that Osieck named the same team for successive matches. While it seems unwise to deviate for Iraq, it’s total negligence not to note the immediate transformation in lethality and energy when Thompson arrived. Cahill is not a striker and doesn’t behave like one. Too often he was in his own half retrieving balls. Again, often on breaks, no one was forward, meaning attacks broke down. In contrast, with an actual striker menacing the last line and pushing the defence back, suddenly there was all this space for attacking midfielders to exploit. The result was astounding. It’s not the first time either. Australia recovered late to beat Iraq earlier in the campaign. Finally: Brett Holman. The seduction is over. Can’t pass, runs erratically, shoots wildly and impetuous with decisions. While some of it can be forgiven for his energy and rare cracking goal and whatever else the coaches see, it was his inability to hit simple, short passes that really frustrated. In the interim between qualifiers and the World Cup, someone like Tomas Rogic – who replaced Holman during the game – must be tried. Better still, drop Cahill back to his customary and more dangerous role as lurking attacking midfielder and play a striker up front.

How times have changed with female sports journalists and specifically Fox Sports’ Melanie McLaughlin. Tim Cahill delivered his own knock-out by kissing her after the post-match interview – somewhat surprising her. This was the same player incredibly rude and disrespectful to her post-match Japan, MCG, 2009. It was some petulant protest about other sections of the media reporting alleged unruly behaviour at a Sydney bar by Cahill – something nothing to do with Fox Sports. It only hurt Cahill and the team’s image as fans deserved to hear answers to the excellent questions about the match. McLaughlin deserved an apology back then. Whether she received one, that determines the interpretation of the kiss. The original incident was covered in the page for South Africa 2010 qualifying on the website.

* Apologies for the abridged and late update. A broken collarbone from a bike crash meant another hospital visit and typing limited to just the left hand.

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Full site: socceroorealm.com