Direct Qualification – What Went Wrong?

12 September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Results

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

Group A Qualifiers

Iran (22 points), Korea (15 points)

Match Report

More at the AFC

Ange Postecoglou’s post-match comments:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Thailand Game – Preview

04 September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confederations Cup 2017 Provides Encouragement for Vital Japan Clash

05 July 2017

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

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

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

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

Confederations Cup – Group B

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

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

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

 

Socceroo Realm – Top 5 Moments of 2016

15 January 2017

A very quiet year for the Socceroos, football in general, and the Socceroo Realm. It’s ironic that with the move into Asia and therefore more serious matches that the net result is a dilution of the product. Win here, draw there, add the occasional loss, ignore the friendlies, it’s the pattern now. Even in the midst of a World Cup qualifying campaign it doesn’t lend itself to great highlights. Then there’s the impact of Twitter being such a convenient tool for instant and concise opinion. I can bang off something there immediately on the phone instead of sit in front of a computer for something more structured.

In the sprit of trying to return some zing to upcoming World Cup qualifiers and the year in general, here’s the Top 5 highlights for 2016.

1) Australia finish the year with three draws in World Cup qualifying

After starting with wins over Iraq and the UAE, the final group phase of qualifying was beginning to look like a procession. Even commentators were talking about wrapping it up with 2 or 3 games to go. Not so fast! Draws to Japan, Saudi Arabia and Thailand provided us with a nice reality check and brought us back to the pack. Ostensibly the group is in a four-way tie for the top 2 places at the half-way point so it’s effectively a reset. With 3 of those 5 remaining games also at home, Australia is still well placed to finish in the top 2.

2) Thailand 2 – Australia 2

This was a stunningly exciting World Cup qualifier to end the year, with Thailand running Australia ragged and playing inspired football in tribute to the recent death of their king. In fact, they should have won. With Iraq, they are the two teams seemingly out of contention at the moment. The group: Saudia Arabia 10, Japan 10, Australia 9, UAE 9, Iraq 3, Thailand 1.

3) Confederations Cup 2017 Draw

Australia will play Chile, Germany and an unknown African team. Please don’t let it be Ghana, as that would be 3 repeat opponents from previous World Cups (Chile 2014, Germany and Ghana 2010). In the other group is Russia, Mexico, Portugal and New Zealand. That’s a much more sexier group, particularly playing the hosts Russia. Mexico is an opponent we’ve dealt with easily in the past and haven’t played for a while, and when is the last time we played Portugal?

4) England 2 – Australia 1

Yes, we played England mid-year. This was a match more notable for they fact I couldn’t recognise England’s team as much as anyone in England could recognise Australia’s team. Given that we’re so entrenched in Asia these days and have so many meaningful matches, these so-called “friendly” matches are becoming more and more exhibition in status as the years pass. Even such a traditional rivalry like England vs Australia doesn’t help them.

5) Australia 1 – Japan 1

The first half of this September World Cup qualifier was possibly the worst display of any Australian team ever. Limp, clueless and ineffective were the words of choice at the time. The only real exception is the Youth World Cup of 2009 in Egypt where Australia was hammered in all three games and Craig Foster still saw it fit to write the team a letter of congratulations for the “brand” of football they played. This entry is only here to serve as encouragement for all future Australian teams that think they might of played the worst ever. No, you probably did alright compared to this woeful performance.

 

Kruse to the next phase; Japan await yet again

17 April 2016

With comfortable wins over Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh following the loss in Jordan, Australia’s final two matches at home were mostly academic. Two draws most likely would have been sufficient to qualify for the third round and final group phase of World Cup qualifying, while a win would guarantee it. Tajikistan proved to offer minimal resistance, losing 7-0 in Adelaide, while Jordan weren’t much better in their 5-1 loss in Sydney. Tajikistan conceded within 3 minutes and then another on 13 minutes before a 5-goal onslaught in the second half. Jordan lasted until the 24th minute before conceding, then conceded another two just before half time. Game over. For Jordan, after losing in Kyrgyzstan two games earlier and now requiring a win to guarantee a spot in the next round, it was heartbreaking. Remember, this was the team that made the intercontinental play-off in the last cycle.

Russia 2018 Asian World Cup Qualifying - Group B - Final Table

Most interesting to observe from these final two games was the team’s progression. They have had trouble putting teams away, and been dumb strategically. They were also too reliant on the aging Tim Cahill. Other players needed to step up, while the team needed to be smarter in their approach. Preferring more often to take the game to opponents, particularly away in the Middle East, it played into the hands of opponents, who’d sit back and pounce on the counter attack. Australia needs to remember that their opponents also are in it to win it, so away from home, let them be more adventurous and hit them on the break. Against Jordan, that philosophy was illustrated perfectly, and the results were comprehensive. They turned around a 2-0 loss away to a 5-1 win by simply allowing their opponents force some of the pressure.

Even more exciting was the improvement in many players. Robbie Kruse, who was finally back after a long injury spell, toyed with Jordan. It was one of his best games for Australia ever, and only dampened by a nasty tackle from behind by Jordan’s Yousef al Rawashde. How it wasn’t a red was mystifying. Even worse would have been another injury. Jordan were so rattled that they even threw a second ball on the field at one stage to stop a quick throw in. It failed miserably as Australia scored their fifth goal. Tom Rogic, now established in Scotland, has added a lethal shot and far superior decision making to his game. The three goals he scored in those two games were superb. Melbourne City’s Aaron Mooy has taken command in midfield, setting up and scoring goals. His passing is sublime, at a level not really seen in the Socceroos since Ned Zelic, or Milan Ivanovic with some of the long passing. Coach Ange Postecoglou even unearthed a bright new talent in Apostolos Giannou. He got his debut against Tajikistan, impressed with his pace and power, and only letdown by missing a sitter. He deserved a goal. Another letdown, becoming persistent too, is Matthew Leckie. He seems to have lost the plot, particularly with final balls into the box and shooting.

Onwards to the draw for the final group phase of qualifying. It’s no secret that the Socceroo Realm, as would many Australians, would love to see Australia play Iran again. It’s been nearly 20 years since the infamous Iran Game. Much of the chatter before the Jordan game was for Australia to win it to ensure a seeding as one of the top two teams. Supposedly that would avoid a tougher draw – based on FIFA rankings. No it wouldn’t, because FIFA rankings are a joke in their creation, and meaningless in a competitive field. Australia, Iran, Japan and Korea are arguably the top four teams in Asia and there’s little between them whatever some silly FIFA number sitting next to them wants to make us believe. In drawing the final two groups, two of these top four would play each other regardless. The only exception being that the top seed in each pot would not play each other. So for Australia to have a random chance at either Iran, Japan or Korea, they needed not to be seeded. As it turns out, they were one of the top two seeds. Guess which was the other? Iran. Depressing, and rigged. The top four should have been in one pot and randomly paired that way. In fact, the other 8 teams should be in one pot too, and randomly drawn. There should not be such a strict interpretation of these dopey FIFA rankings.

Immediately we knew Australia could not play Iran, so let’s hope we at least draw some new teams. We haven’t played Korea at all in World Cup qualifying since our entry into Asia, and drawing them would add to the rivalry generated from the epic Asian Cup 2015 final. Except for an early group phase two cycles ago, we’ve missed China too. Alas, nothing went our way. We got Japan for the third straight cycle, Thailand and three Middle Eastern teams. The only salvation is that Saudi Arabia is back on the ascend, so they should be interesting. UAE are on the rise too, finishing third in the Asian Cup. Iraq is the other team, who finished fourth in the Asian Cup, and can be dangerous. It’s a challenging draw.

Schedule

01 Sep 2016: Australia vs Iraq
06 Sep 2016: UAE vs Australia
06 Oct 2016: Saudi Arabia vs Australia
11 Oct 2016: Australia vs Japan
15 Nov 2016: Thailand vs Australia
23 Mar 2017: Iraq vs Australia
28 Mar 2017: Australia vs UAE
13 Jun 2017: Australia vs Saudi Arabia
13 Aug 2017: Japan vs Australia
05 Sep 2017: Australia vs Thailand

Note that there are six teams in each group, up from five from previous years. Obviously this is to allow more teams to be involved. It also means no more byes. The away trip to Japan is the second last match day, which could affect its prestige if both teams are safely qualified. The top two teams from each group automatically qualify for Russia 2018, with the two third teams playing off for a spot against CONCACAF’s fourth best team. That third-placed playoff is actually the only way Australia and Iran can meet in this World Cup qualifying cycle. Could it happen?

Round 2 Group Winners

Group A: Saudi Arabia
Group B: Australia
Group C: Qatar
Group D: Iran
Group E: Japan
Group F: Thailand
Group G: Korea Republic
Group H: Uzbekistan

Round 2 Best Second-Placed Teams

1. Iraq
2. Syria
3. United Arab Emirates
4. China

Round 3 Group Draw

Group A: Iran, Korea Republic, Uzbekistan, China, Qatar, Syria

Group B: Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Thailand

More: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/preliminaries/asia/

Melbourne Cup 2015 Preview

2 November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

01) Snow Sky 58kg (GB)

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

02) Criterion 57.5 (AUS)

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

03) Fame Game 57 (JPN)

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

04) Our Ivanhowe 56 (AUS/IMP)

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

05) Big Orange 55.5 (GB)

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

06) Hartnell 55.5 (AUS/IMP)

Locally trained import. Distance and form doubt.

07) Hokko Brave 55.5 (JPN)

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

08) Max Dynamite 55 (FRA)

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

09) Red Cadeaux 55 (GB)

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

10) Trip To Paris 55 (IRE)

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

11) Who Shot Thebarman 54.5 (AUS)

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

12) Sky Hunter 54 (GB)

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

13) The Offer 54 (AUS/IMP)

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

14) Grand Marshal 53.5 (AUS/IMP)

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

15) Preferment 53.5 (AUS)

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

16) Quest For More 53.5 (IRE)

Flopped in lead-up run in Australia. Goodbye.

17) Almoonqith 53 (AUS/IMP)

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

18) Kingfisher 53 (IRE)

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

19) Prince Of Penzance 53 (AUS)

No hope.

20) Bondi Beach 52.5 (IRE)

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

21) Sertorius 52.5 (AUS)

No hope.

22) The United States 52.5 (AUS/IMP)

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

23) Excess Knowledge 51 (AUS)

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

24) Gust Of Wind 51 (AUS)

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


Summary

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

Remember: It’s only gambling if you lose!

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Canada 2015 – Women’s World Cup – Review of Australia / Matildas

28 June 2015

Disappointing end to a promising campaign

After escaping the so-called “group of death”, and then beating Brazil in the round of 16 to record their first knock-out match win ever, the Matildas succumbed to World Champions Japan 1-0 in the quarter final. Even with 5 days break compared to 3 for Japan, the Matildas seemed lethargic from the start and unable to impose their game. While commentators suggested fatigue was the problem, it seemed more like a combination of Japan being too good and Australia possibly pacing the game in case of extra time. The “hot weather”, which was 26 at the start of the game and forecast to reach 31, should not have been a problem. The artificial pitch, supposedly 50 degrees in such conditions, did not hamper the players’ post match commiseration, as they lay sprawled all over it in sadness. Pacing the knockout games seemed to be a trend at the men’s World Cup in Brazil last year, and maybe it’s crept in here too. It’s a good strategy, as long as you’re not sucker-punched near the end of regulation time.

Other than the early phase of the second half, Australia were shut out of the game, and ultimately hit with a sucker punch. Their only shots were speculative from range or from the very rare Japanese mistakes. While 8 corners to zero and a 60% possession rate are suggestive of the dominance, the reality of the dominance is that Japan’s high-pressing strategy saw Australia’s attempt to play its possession game collapse. It only seemed a matter of time that Japan would capitalise on a mistake or convert a corner, and that proved exactly true when a loose pass out of defence was picked off. After the shot was blocked, the resulting corner on 87 minutes was scrambled into the net. Game over against a Japanese team that all teams have found difficult to crack. Ignoring the bad goal-keeping error in the R16 final against the Netherlands, Japan have only conceded one goal all tournament.

Australia’s best performance of the tournament came against Brazil in the R16 final. They managed to shut down the dangerous Brazil while creating good opportunities for themselves. The winning goal came on the 64th minute by the fabulous Kyah Simon, who scored both goals in the pivotal game against Nigeria that virtually sealed Australia’s place in the second round, to leave the Brazilians shattered. It was marvellous scenes for both the jubilation of the Matildas and tears of the often arrogant and conceited Brazilians.

This World Cup had been expanded to 24 nations from 16, meaning the four best third-place teams from the six groups would also progress and 3 points is quite often to progress. Australia drew 1-1 with Sweden in their final group match to hold second place, while Sweden’s three draws were enough for them to progress in third. USA, which had difficulties against Australia and Sweden, won the group with 7 points. Against the USA, Australia matched them for the first 60 minutes, entering half time at 1-1, before class told in the end and USA ran out 3-1 winners.

Quotes – Norio Sasaki, Japan’s coach

Even if we didn’t get a goal within 90 minutes, I felt we would get it inside 120 minutes. The game-plan was executed very well. We recognise the growth of Australia in this World Cup and my team will take confidence from this and we can build with future success (at the tournament). Also the solutions we came up for this match worked very well, and this also gives us confidence. We will fight hard in the semi-final being mindful of the people supporting us back in Japan.

Quotes – Alen Stajcic, Australia’s coach

Clearly the better team won, even though I thought it evened out a bit after the first 20 minutes. Japan were a lot more composed over the full 90 minutes. We didn’t set out to play any differently, but we just spent a lot of energy in the first 20 minutes chasing the game. Most of our players are young, and it is a heartbreaking moment for them, but sometimes you learn from these experiences. We don’t want to compete with the best, we want to beat the best, so now it is a case of taking further steps. There is a lot of room for growth moving forward.


The Women’s Game

Watching these tournaments since Sweden 1995, when just 12 teams participated and Australia lost all 3 games, the growth in skill has been phenomenal. The key growth area is the goal-keepers, who bordered on embarrassing even until the last World Cup in Germany. So many long shots would be scored as the goalies’ poor athleticism would preclude them from reaching shots that seemed in very simple reach of the men. Even allowing for women being less powerful in the leap and generally shorter, the attempts to save looked terrible, or the women would be left flat-footed. That’s all changed for Canada 2015 with notably far few shots from range being scored, and that’s not from the lack of trying. Australia’s Lydia Williams notably pulled off several world class saves, especially against Brazil, and she’s only 175cm tall. Defending is also tighter in general, especially the lack of one-on-ones. It’s only the African and Latin American teams, who are quite a bit off the pace, that you still see some of this calamity. Also the expansion to 24 teams did bring a few weaker teams in, notably Ivory Coast and Ecuador, both of whom conceded 10 goals in a match.

The general attraction of the women’s game – the more open play and more shots on goal – that’s still there. That should remain a part of the fabric of the game given women’s weakness (or strength!) of being naturally not quite as strong or fast as the men. So, too, should the paucity of diving, cheating and time-wasting that often blights the men’s game. Let’s hope this difference is a result of women having more integrity rather than being “less professional” than the men so that it never enters the women’s game. This overall increase in action and flow meant that the Australia/Japan QF was probably the only match that approached the banality of a stalemate in the men’s game. If the women keep improving, there’s no reason why they cannot provide a product that’s as compelling to watch as the men’s. In tennis and basketball, connoisseurs of those sports (including myself) appreciate the more technical and nuance nature of the female versions. Football, with the rules unchanged for the woman, can certainly reach this level.

Of course, the other attraction of the women’s game is the women themselves. Let’s be realistic and resist accusations of sexism, women have for generations enjoyed watching men play for reasons more than just watching a football match, so why not vice versa? Thankfully the women are not treated as sex objects, as play in the same uniforms as the men, not any stupid bodysuits to artificially “sex up” the game, like Australian basketball did or once Sepp Blatter notoriously suggested that football do. Kyah Simon has the prettiest eyes and a winning smile that’s as lethal as her boot, and is certainly my favourite of the Australian team, while any player with a long ponytail looks so elegant. Japan’s Rumi Utsugi, who was integral in converting the winning corner, is one notable, as too almost the entire starting eleven of the Netherlands. USA still has the glamorous Hope Solo, who’s been a long time favourite.

It’s good to see different teams dominate at world level. In the early days the trio of USA, Norway and China were the most dominant. While Norway and China have slid a little, the USA have reached the semi final of every single World Cup. Japan has taken over as Asia’s most dominant team, while Germany has supplanted Norway. Traditional footballing countries are now improving thanks to their domestic leagues, notably England and France, and this was the first ever World Cup for Spain, Netherlands and Switzerland. Latin America is poor (except for Brazil) and Africa is far behind. Canada is the other strong member in the Americas, while Asia saw Thailand qualify to reinforce the power of the east. New Zealand is competitive for Oceania.


Offsides

Give the female assistant referees a gig at the men’s events! Never before have I see a virtual faultless display off refereeing the offside law. Most particular the “favour the attacker” edict in that, yes, in every line-ball case, the referees favoured the attackers! Maybe only once I’ve seen an obvious offside allowed, and even then we’re still talking reasonably close. More importantly, I don’t recall seeing a wrong offside called. Those are the true bane of the sport, because they deny goals and goal chances. The spirit of the law is being refereed perfectly at this World Cup. Whatever it is, better eyesight, reinforcement of the edict, or females having a better empathy for the game, it’s been wonderful. The outfield refereeing has also been great. If there’s an area that the women have clearly surpassed the men, it’s the referees.


Equality

The big talking point in the media has been the discrepancy of pay between the men and women. While the men get $6000 per match at their World Cup, the women get $500 at theirs. Obviously market forces are involved here, with the men generating far more revenue. They also get a slice of the prize-money, which the women also do. While you could say double the match payment to $1000, there will still be calls of inequality unless it’s even. Just look at Grand Slam tennis where even at less than 5% difference in recent years, the women were still howling until it was equal. That’s even despite the fact their matches are only 60% as long as the men, they attract less crowds and the depth in their fields is much weaker. Given the match payments are a relatively small cost in the overall expense of sending a team to a World Cup, the FFA should probably just make it equal. As for prize-money split, that percentage should also be equal. Unfortunately, until the women’s game generates enough revenue to pay the massive prize-money on offer at a men’s World Cup, that means total dollars from prize-money will remain low compared to the men.

The important thing with any issue of equality is to see it progressing. It was only 20 years ago that the men were striking at their pathetic pay, which was in the realm of a few hundred dollars like the women now. Remember World Series Cricket in the 70s? That was all about pay, particularly revenue coming into the game that wasn’t being spread to the players. Cricket has just recently put their women on contract, something that the FFA has emulated. The advantage with the cricket model is that, yes, you do control your players, so your national team is never compromised. Unfortunately that’s created a problem that the women are then precluded to play overseas, where they could earn much more money than the local W-League. Football is not cricket, with fundamentally different structures at international level. Whereas cricket is a pseudo club team almost permanently on international tour, football is representative and an adjunct to domestic club competitions. For the short-term sacrifice to the improvement of the Matildas that the contract system seems to have made for this World Cup, it would better to disband the contracts, use that money to pay higher wages in the W-League, and be more accommodating to any player that does want to go overseas. After all, if it’s about equality, our female warriors should be treated equally to our male ones.

Full site: socceroorealm.com