Reality check as Spain outclasses Australia

24 June 2014

Arena da Baixada in Curitiba, Australia 0 – Spain 3

Amazing how the nation’s mood swings. Before the tournament, no one gave Australia much hope of achieving anything against Spain. During the tournament, after the good performances against Chile and Netherlands, and with Spain at a low ebb after two losses, Australia believe it had a good chance for a result – at least a draw, to see it avoid finish bottom of the group. The initial feeling prevailed as the current world champions showed the gulf in class between Australia and the top teams, and delivered a reality check about Australia’s overall status on the world stage. In the end, the group table read Australia in last place with zero points and a -6 goal difference. Who’d have thought that pre-tournament? Basically everybody.

It was not just the calibre of player that saw Australia outclassed; they were utterly destroyed tactically. Spain allowed them plenty of room for the opening 20 minutes of game, allowing to pass around the back-line, allow a little space in midfield. When it came to the final third, it was total denial, crushing all attacks, and looking dangerous on the counter attack. Then Spain put their foot down. The pressure went on higher up the pitch, and Australia soon conceded its first goal.

The second half was little different to the first. Some freedom at the start, then exploited by the end. You only need hear the blathering Craig Foster in the commentary box one minute commending Australia for playing so well, and then the very next minute, after Spain score their second goal, Australia are being “handed a football lesson”. While Foster was a total trainwreck in the commentary box, cheering and coaching almost every single moment in the most embarrassing and cringe-worthy display ever heard on national television and should be sacked from any future postings, his nonsensical drivel at least illustrated the reality that Australia was facing. Indeed, it was a football lesson. Not just for the periods that led to the goals, it was a lesson over the entire match.

Such was Spain’s dominance, Australia did not have one single, decent attempt on goal. The total of four shots on goal were longer range and speculative – mostly out of frustration to get anything closer off – and never forced a save. The midfield was riddled with turnovers – often very cheap ones. Final balls often went straight to a Spanish player. Many of these passes were not even under pressure, hinting at a tired team or simply a team wary of sensing pressure.

For the third game in a row, Australia conceded 3 goals. All three goals were as a result of the defence torn apart – almost seemingly at will – with the goal-keeper staring down point-blank shots on goal. Jason Davidson was caught out for two goals, giving too much space on the Spanish right for Juanfran to receive from Andres Iniesta and cross to an open David Villa for a nice back-heel tap in, and then failing to move up with the defensive line for the third goal. That second error saw Juan Mata played onside in almost a mirror image of the goal by Robben van Persie in the match against Netherlands. The second goal was a defence splitting pass by Andres Iniesta, who simply was allowed too much time on the ball. The jury is still out about purging all the experienced defenders for this World Cup. Just that touch more experience and maybe half of these 9 goals are avoided.

Final Player Ratings

Goal-keepers

As is often the case, goalies are generally judged by their mistakes, and Mathew Ryan played almost exactly to the level you’d expect of a goal-keeper playing in the Belgian league. Holland’s winning goal would have been stopped by a higher calibre goalie. Overall, he was solid, making several great, reflex stops, without being the total security that you hope from your national team goalie.

Stoppers

In truth, Mathew Spiranovic and Alex Wilkinson did well. Especially Spiranovic, who’d been very inconsistent in his earlier Socceroos career when paired with senior defenders like Lucas Neill. Quite possibly being senior defender this time and giving him the marshalling duties has helped. While Neill might have helped plug some of the gaps this tournament, he wasn’t needed as stopper. There’s also Rhys Williams and Curtis Good – both injured prior to the World Cup – to push for a return.

Full-backs

Ivan Franjic supplied good crosses, while his injury replacement, Ryan McGowan, supplied the cross for Tim Cahill against Netherlands and defended well. No faults there. Jason Davidson, on the left, is the interesting one. Solid on the ball and at tight-defending; almost hopeless with positional awareness. He’ll need to move to a much higher club level than a mediocre club in the Dutch league, where he’d rarely face the testing offence that you get at international level. This position is where Neill might have been handy. He played much of his club career with Blackburn Rovers at right back, and may have been able to adjust with a left back posting. We’ll never know. Otherwise, Australia had few options there, and the position overall is still a problem.

Defensive midfielders

All three used – Mile Jedinak, Matt McKay and Mark Milligan – all serviceable. This area was always the area that Australia did not lack, and it showed.

Attacking midfielders

Tom Oar on the left disappointed with his touch, passing and even his pace was off. Without the pace, his small stature became a liability as he was often bustled off the ball. Other than against Croatia in a warm-up game, he has failed to really achieve the potential the nation has hoped. Mark Bresciano in the centre still has nice touches and passes. Unfortunately, he is let down by lack of pace, often dithering on the ball, and his shooting boots were way off. His substitute, Oliver Bozanic, did well enough to suggest a future. On the right, Mathew Leckie was a revelation, constantly beating defenders with pace and quick dribbles. He needs to improve in final passing situations and decision making to polish his game. Substitutes used in midfield of Ben Halloran and James Troisi were serviceable for the limited time they had and against the class they faced.

Forwards

Tim Cahill is not a forward despite his exploits. Coach Ange Posteglou summed up the reality of the selection in a press conference saying Cahill is among the best in the world… with his head. That seemed a slight on his foot skills, which is probably right as they have deteriorated over time, making it a valid reason not to use him in midfield. His strengths are forward with his head, his shooting boots, and is general ability to be a nuisance. Leckie was tried forward in the second half against Spain and looked much more dangerous than Adam Taggart, who was tried in the first half. Leckie could be the future. Regardless, the situation now is Australia’s biggest liability is in attack. Postecoglou said post-Spain that he wants Australia to be feared next time. That can only happen with a quantum leap in quality of strikers. Just imagine Arjen Robben and a Robin van Persie on Australia’s team. Results could have been blistering. One salvation is the injured Robbie Kruse waiting to return the national team. Also Joshua Kennedy, who was sadly omitted from the final squad. Just his presence, at least another aerial option to Tim Cahill, can be invaluable.

Coach

Ange Postecoglou is all class and nailed almost everything asked of him. No one really expected Australia to gain any points from this tournament, so the disappointment felt when Australia actually did finish with nothing reflects more on the in-tournament possibilities that arrived. Reality is the players are just not at the required level yet. Ange’s big test is the Asian Cup early next year. Situations will be reversed with Australia the team pressuring the opposition, with the opposition trying to create the surprises. Performing well will be a given. Winning will almost be expected.

Tournament Prediction

Being away for a month on holidays just prior to the World Cup meant no time for predictions. Here’s a brief version.

As often is the case, it’s the draw that counts. Also, teams that have “struggled” in the group stages and still won (like Argentina), no reason to write them off.

France have been the most impressive team so far, and have a soft draw, and should eventually meet Brazil in a semi final. Brazil’s main challenge to reach the semi is crossing with Group D, where Costa Rica’s success has consigned either Italy or Uruguay to second spot and a tougher path. Either way, Group D seems weak, so Brazil should cope with any of those teams. Germany, if it wins Group G as expected, could be bigger spoiler. If it in finishes second, it’s thrown onto the opposite side of the draw.

Netherlands are the most impressive team on the other side of the draw and should face Argentina in the semi final there. Belgium is the team that could surprise. While not excelling as some pre-tournament hype suggested, they have still won both games.

Despite the potentially tough draw for Brazil, and the home-team pressure, they should at least make the semi final. From there, they fall to France. The other semi really should be Netherlands vs Argentina. With the Dutch defence being a little suspect, expect Argentina to prevail. So France vs Argentina in the final, and an image is appearing. It’s whichever team is in the darker blue!

That is Brazil 2014 – The 20th World Championship of Futbol

Full site: socceroorealm.com

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Australia vs Netherlands – Preview

18 June 2014

Defence must hold up

As strange as it seems, especially after reading all the “must win” claims in the media, Australia does not need to beat Netherlands in their second group match   tonight. Presuming Spain beat Chile, that leaves both Spain and Chile on 3 points, Australia on 0 and the Dutch on 6. The equation for the final match in the group is for Australia to beat Spain, and hope Netherlands beat Chile. If Australia snag a draw tonight, then they could afford Netherlands and Chile to draw the final match. It will come down to goal difference, and that’s where conceding the extra goal against Chile will hurt, and where the Dutch demolition of Spain helps.

Defence will be an even bigger key than it was in the first match. In light of the national exuberance that Australia prevented itself from being destroyed and, indeed, “competed” adequately for 70 minutes, the big issue entering this tournament was defence. It failed. That this fundamental tenet of the game be ignored because the rest of the match was reasonable, is wrong. Defending will be the test in tonight’s match, not whether Australia can have its moments and create a few chances. Because most likely, it will.

Reality is that Australia has been competing on the world stage for at least two decades. It was only 13 years ago that they defeated world champions France and subsequent world champions Brazil on the way to a third place at a Confederations Cup. They’ve already reached a knockout stage of a World Cup once, and nearly did it again four years ago. Despite the novice nature of some of the team, Australia are not putting out amateurs on the pitch like 30 or 40 years ago. These are all full time professionals players, many of whom with decent and long established European experience.

Maybe it’s been the media that’s lulled the players – and most fans – into this thinking of Australia is suddenly a “minnow” again, and honourable losses are acceptable. Thankfully, coach Ange Postecoglou has not been consumed by this faux pride, repeating in many interviews since about his disappointment at letting an opportunity slip. Quite possibly, the major opportunity for a win is gone. It wasn’t Spain or Netherlands in that first game. It was Chile. Despite the flawed FIFA rankings often cited, Chile are hardly a world power. They’ve only have been to the round of 16 twice in their long history at the World Cup, and never passed it. Usually they fall at the group stage. Before the tournament, Chile was the match against we hoped to draw, if not win. Now the results must come from the real big boys of the group.

Australia’s record against the Netherlands is statistically good at 2 draws and 1 win. In truth, both the two draws could easily have been a battering. The first was a 1-1 in Rotterdam in the lead-up to the 2006 World Cup, and the other was a 0-0 in Sydney towards the end of the Pim Verbeek era. Poor shooting, good goal-keeping and good luck kept Australia in both the drawn matches. Even the 1-1, Australia’s goal came from a penalty, which was saved only for Tim Cahill to win the pounce on the scrimmage for the rebound. The win, in Eindhoven, and under Verbeek, was a good, recovering from an early goal conceded.

With Ivan Franjic injured, Ryan McGowan will most likely take the right back spot and will offer more defensive surety at the expense of attacking prowess. It was Franjic that set up Cahill’s goal, and the one disallowed for offside. Maybe Ange will tweak his attacking options, as Tom Oar was poor on the left wing against Chile. Mark Milligan will miss the game through injury, which should not harm the team’s prospects too much as he’s merely one of several moderately good players available can fulfil a deep midfield role.

It can’t be emphasised enough. Defence is the key, and will be severely under the microscope. It simply must hold up. Then the Dutch could get frustrated, and leave a few gaps for Australia to exploit. With the hammering of Spain under their belt, they go into this match expected to win. It will be hard to suppress this over-confidence, so the best way to use it against them is to keep them under pressure. That will be done by seeing a zero next to the Netherlands on the scoreboard for as long as possible. Quite simply, nothing will be as galling and disappointing in this match than if Australia lost by a couple of goals and conceded early. Nothing.

Full site: socceroorealm.com