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

18 January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Advertisements

Oman demoralised, now for the real test: Korean Republic

15 January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full website: socceroorealm.com

Australia vs Kuwait: Satisfying result, good performance

10 January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Japan 2 – Tim Cahill 1

19 November 2014

Osaka: Japan 2 – Australia 1

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

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

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

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

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

Teams

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

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

Goals

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

Full site: socceroorealm.com