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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Shattering loss and elimination in a case of “what if”

19 June 2014

Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, Australia 2 – Netherlands 3

Out and not disgraced, Ange has made us proud

Australia is out of the World Cup after sensationally losing to Netherlands, and then followed Spain losing to Chile, confirming both teams as the first teams eliminated from the World Cup. It was a shattering loss after Australia was 2-1 up, had a glorious chance to score a third, had another glorious chance at 2-2 to retake the lead, only to be bitten hard on the backside with some slightly sloppy defending, eventually losing 3-2.

Most shattering about the loss is that despite Australia’s excellent effort for most of the tournament – all except the first 20 minutes against Chile, really – Australia has absolutely nothing to show for their endeavour. It’s one thing to compete well; it’s a whole new level to produce a result. It leaves a hollow feeling, and the country seems, as a whole, to have moved on from the pride of playing well against the many predictions, to a big case of “what if”. The biggest regret you can ever have from a competition is “what if”. Australia goes home with a big one.

Defence was spotlighted as the area to address heading to this match, and sadly, again, Australia conceded three goals. You’ll never get results conceding 3 goals a game. While there was none of the nervous chaos against Chile, there was still the hint of inexperience that partially allowed the final two goals, while Mark Bresciano’s errant pass when under no pressure saw a steal and quick break for Arjen Robben to score Holland’s first. Tim Cahill immediately answered back with a spectacular volley, to effectively cancel out that mistake. From there, it was what if Tim Cahill did not over-hit his pass to Mathew McKay on the break to allow him a close shot on goal or better crossing chance for a chance at 3-1. What if Tom Oar’s cross to Mathew Leckie was at a convenient height, rather than at his chest to allow an easy save and keep the score 2-2. What if Jason Davidson learnt from his previous problems of poor defensive awareness, and not play Robin Van Persie onside for the Dutch equaliser at 2-2. What if Mathew Ryan managed to save the difficult dipping, a swerving shot from Memphis Depay that saw the Dutch take the lead. So frustratingly, that goal came directly from a counter attack from the Leckie miss. Australia scores that, it’s 3-2 to them. Instead it’s 3-2 to Netherlands. What if. What if. What if. It plainly sucks.

The one area of true pride that can be gained from this tournament is with coach Ange Postecoglou. He typifies everything that it means to be Australian – a good, and decent, Australian. Ambitious while being respectful. Confident while being realistic. With the Socceroos humble place in the world of football, it allows these great attributes to shine. Too often, in other sports, in which Australia dominate, the “respectful” and the “realistic” part of the equation goes missing, to the point that we become obnoxious bullies and spoiled brats. Ange keeps these virtues in harmony primarily by strength of his own personal character. Even at Brisbane Roar with the two championships and that record undefeated run, he remained the statesman and a servant to the greater good, to that of the sport. With the Socceroos, he takes that to service to another level, to the good of the country. He’s made this fan most proudest of our team probably ever. Australian of the Year? Prime Minister? A knighthood? While the instinct is to cheer wildly for that, Ange just wouldn’t have a bar of it.

Tim Cahill has played his last World Cup game. He copped a yellow against Holland in an unnecessary and reckless foul. That’s Cahill. It’s part of his character. On one hand there’s the bravado and cheek and irresistible attribute to pop up for a goal at the most opportune possible. On the hand there’s the arrogance and petulance and frustrating attribute that can harm Australia’s greater good. Note his red card against Germany in the last World Cup that saw. Cahill might say his greater good are the goals, and without his flaws, he just wouldn’t be the player he is. Maybe he’s right, and he bows out with the best goal of the tournament so far. It was a wonderful volley on the end of a sweeping cross from Ryan McGowan, and immediately after Holland had taken the lead. He’s been simply irrepressible, right to the end, and will be greatly missed.

Mark Bresciano picked up a hip flexor injury and is unlikely for the next match, meaning his World Cup career is over. He could count himself lucky to get a third tournament – being the only senior player with Cahill to survive the rejuvenation purge, and that’s despite playing in the Qatari league and coming of a four-month FIFA suspension and injury concerns. Whether it’s age or simply a result of playing in those rubbish Middle Eastern leagues, he was often caught dwelling on the ball, most particular this game that led to the Netherlands’ first goal. His touch was off, his speed lacking and his shooting was disappointing. Either way, it must be a blanket rule from now on that anyone in such a substandard league automatically disqualifies themselves for the Socceroos. In Oliver Bozanic, there’s a worthy option as a successor. Immediately when he came on for Bresciano’s after 50 minutes, Bozanic created the penalty opportunity that saw Australia equalise.

Ironically, Australia gets its wish of facing World Champions, Spain, in the final group match with Spain having nothing to play for. The prediction – or hope – was that Spain would be already qualified for the second phase. In actuality, they lost their second match too, losing 2-0 to Chile, to arrive at the final group match dejected and disconsolate in a battle to avoid last place in the group. Australia only needs a draw to achieve that target. It’s nothing less than they deserve.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Disappointing loss to Chile despite the promise shown

14 June 2014

Chile 3 – Australia 1

We as a country must be at a low ebb if we are “proud” of a 3-1 loss to a team in which hoped for a better result. After conceding two early goals, it was disappointing not to convert one of the several chances created in the second half, and then even more disappointing to concede another goal in injury time. The goal Australia scored came courtesy of a Tim Cahill header that brought the game to 2-1 ten minutes before half time. Post match it was odd to see all the studio and commentary “experts”, along with most fans, beaming with pride at the “performance” despite the sickly feeling of the final goal and the lack of converting the second half renaissance into something tangible. It harks back to the era of 20 or 30 years ago when Australian teams were indeed proud simply to get close to quality teams – to play well enough and not be annihilated, and regale in our “brave losses”. Are we back in this situation again?

Thankfully coach Ange Postecoglou didn’t buy into this nonsense of a good performance. While proud that the team did not capitulate after such a poor start that many anticipated in such a scenario, he was far more disappointed that nothing was gained at the result. He is not in Brazil for “performance” and getting style marks. This is not figure skating. It’s a score based game and scoring is the quintessential measure of a result at such a tournament. Yes, even with the somewhat experimental and youthful team, that does not absolve the greater responsibility of achievement. After all, if you are not driving for a result at the pinnacle tournament of the sport, when will you go for it?

Australia will rue the horrible start to the game. Two goals in two minutes inside the first 12 minutes almost made the mission hopeless. Against fears of the inexperienced defence unravelling and an avalanche of goals conceded, Australia regained composure, and gradually worked back into the game. No doubt Chile also relaxed, with their objective of maximum points from this game before they face the tougher opposition of Spain and Netherlands well in reach. When Cahill scored, the pressure returned on Chile, further enabling Australia to have an impact in the game. Cahill had a goal denied after being just offside, he also had a penalty claim for a shirt pulled ignored, and Mark Bresciano had a low chance from a volley that was well saved. The shirt pull on Cahill was far worse than that seen in the game involving Brazil and Croatia that saw Brazil win a penalty. The difference? Cahill did not throw himself to the ground. You wonder why players “cheat”.

While Australia could craft a few good chances, defence proved the issue. While unlucky for the first goal that the rebound fell to Alexis Sanchez, Mile Jedinak could be pinpointed for not charging at the ball to make a clearing header. The second goal was a mess, with the defence dragged to the right side of the pitch, leaving huge gaps on the left for Jorge Valdivia to exploit and score from mid range. The final goal came from a quickly rebounded goal kick that caught the defence out of shape, especially with Australia pushing for an equalising goal. Also, just after 70 minutes, Chile broke through for a one-on-one situation that could have been curtains for Australia had it not been wrongly adjudicated as offside.

In the group’s other game, the Netherlands destroyed Spain 5-1. With the Dutch being Australia’s next opponents, there simply cannot be any defence lapses. The Dutch victory also has interesting ramifications on the group. While mathematically it makes Australia’s task to progress more difficult as now four points will almost certainly be the minimum required to qualify, it might see a somewhat relaxed and over confident Dutch team enter the game. The pressure on them to beat Australia won’t be near anything as high had they suffered a loss to Spain. Of course, Netherlands have yet to beat Australia at senior level, even if that statistic comprises of only a handful of non-serious games. Continuing that streak will be handy.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

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)