Asia wins as Australia win the Asian Cup of 2015

01 February 2015

Match Report, Asia’s Reaction, FIFA’s Reaction and Asia’s Future

31/01 Sydney: Korea Republic 1 – Australia 2 (1-1 FT)

The Asian Cup of 2015 needed the gripping final that it got to cement itself as the greatest moment in Australian football. It’s been a marvellous tournament, with thrilling football, big crowds and seamless organisation. The fact that the entire football community could so readily engage in the competition, especially to see games live, the tournament was so friendly, and that all the teams were our fellow Asian friends, made it more enjoyable, as a whole, than recent World Cups. Winning the championship surpasses Australia’s previous best triumph on home soil of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. That was just a one-off game, whereas the Asian Cup was a proper tournament that required sustained high achievement over six games.

The final itself, just like the group game against Korea, could have gone either way. The Koreans had the three best chances of the first half, including an open header from a free kick, while Australia could only muster one decent shot on goal, that from Tim Cahill on a tight angle. Distinct from all previous opponents, Korea did not allow Australia to play its dominant possession game, pressuring high up the pitch, almost to the point Australia’s style collapsed. Australia’s opening goal, just before half time, ironically came from a deep pass direct from Trent Sainsbury to Massimo Luongo through one of very few channels the Koreans allowed. Even then, the pass needed Luongo’s deft skill to quickly turn past his marker, and then shoot quickly from 20 metres out. The “Luongoal” came out of nowhere, surprising everyone. It was fitting that Luongo, the man of the tournament, broke open the game with a stunning strike.

Korea dominated the second half, as you’d expect for a team chasing the game. They kept Australia’s defence busy as the match’s pattern became a sense of could Australia hold on. These were the critical moments of the match that ultimately caught Australia out. Even though the defence, in their defence (!), were superb, managing to repel almost everything, facts are that over an entire half, Korea would always create a few chances regardless of Australia’s defensive integrity. It ultimately became a matter of when Korea did, or whether Australia could exploit the open space available. Weaknesses in such situations were already observed in Australia’s previous two games and such profligacy would be punished against Korea. That Korea took until 91 minutes to slip a ball through for an equaliser, only made it heartbreaking for Australia, not undeserved for Korea

Reputedly, coach Ange Postecoglou told his players that extra time would be about making the Asian Cup story even better. Australia came out stronger and scored just before the end of the first period of extra time. It was a tenacious effort by Tomi Juric, who scrambled after a ball, was then doubled teamed on the goal-line, managed to flick the ball through the legs of a defender and then cross it low for James Troisi to slam home the spillage from goalie’s interception. The second period was part 2 of Korea on the press and Australia continually fluffing chances going forward. For some reason, players, when double teamed or even triple teamed, want to flick the ball through somehow. Fine if there’s no choice; terrible when you have a teammate on both wings in the clear, as was the most galling example by Juric really late in the game. 3-1 and you kill the game. Even when cramped in space, there still seems the obsession to pass it to other players tightly marked, rather than look for the obvious route out of a free play that there must be if the opposition is crowding you. This caused constant turnovers and must be the next step of Postecoglou’s development with the team. The two goals Australia scored were closer to a freak nature than of any great breakdown of the Korean defence.

The only disappointment with the final was the television coverage of the winning moment. With a camera still focused on Mathew Spiranovic after he repelled Korea’s final attack, those at home missed the moment of the referee’s whistle ending the game and missed seeing the jubilation of all the players on the field at once. Spiranovic seemed to have an eternity of coverage, then Postecoglou, then various players. Even the commentators missed the moment.

Asia’s Reaction

The Asian Football Confederation are ecstatic with this edition, with one official labelling it the best ever, and AFC president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa glowing in his endorsement: “The tournament itself has been tremendous. Filled with quality and excitement, it was a fantastic festival of football that the whole of Asia can be proud of. As such, allow me to congratulate Australia for hosting such a memorable AFC Asian Cup. The whole world was presented with a competition that has been remarkable in spirit and in passion, and we have Australia to thank for that.” The biggest endorsement and validation and has come from Australia itself. Not just with words, it came with action.

All the garbage you read about Australia being “racist”, especially when the subject of dealing with illegal immigration is raised, this tournament showed the entire world the inclusive and welcoming nature that is modern day Australia. It’s doubtful any other Asian nation could showcase such a vibrant and passionate feel that this nation did for almost every single game. Crowds at just over 650k are the third highest ever, only behind China 2004 (1.02m) and South East Asia 2007 (690k). Cricket’s World Cup starts shortly, and if you want an idea of a true “lemon” on the global sporting scene in terms of general worldwide interest, local interest and crowds, look to that.

FIFA’s Reaction

FIFA President Sepp Blatter was in town for the final and also remarked on the amazing staging of this Asian Cup. He surprised no one when he lamented that no World Cup had yet been held in Australia, saying it’s “an unfortunate omission in sporting history because very few countries boast such a rich sporting culture and long list of champions” and that “we can say with confidence that it would be more than deserved if Australia were to stage the World Cup at some point.” Empty words by a sly and sleazy politician leading an even more sly and sleazy organisation. The World Cup bid was a debacle and if Australia has learnt one big lesson, it’s that any future bid must be foremost about football. Because of the over-reliance on oval grounds, the proposal for 2022 benefitted Australian Rules the most. Also the time of year, with Qatar 2022 certain to be staged in the northern winter, FIFA must formalise a flexible schedule so that a bidding nation can showcase the sport at its best.

With both the Asian and African Cups on in January, European clubs can clearly cope with this time of year, especially when most have winter breaks. The World Cup is only an extra week over those two continental ones. Even then, once the knockout stage started, Australia revived its A-League schedule during the Asian Cup. Therefore it’s only 3 weeks, maybe four, that the few European leagues not on a winter break (name England’s) might need to shut down. One or two leagues might need to re-schedule a few matches depending on the teams in the late stage of a World Cup. Note that this would happen only once every 16 years (at worst) and if it can’t be managed, then the entire notion of “world” in the World Cup needs to be re-examined.

Asia’s Future

Some unsavoury, older, comments emerged during the week about West Asia’s discomfort with Australia in the Asian confederation. It’s quite understandable considering many of them see it as Australia taking a World Cup spot without the region gaining much else in return. West Asia probably couldn’t care that much that the Asian Cup was such a success because, again, there’s no direct benefit to them. The reality is that strong teams make other teams stronger and that wallowing within your own little construct will only keep you down. We see that manifest with most Arab nations left behind at international level because their leagues have stagnated. Of the 10 Middle Eastern teams in Australia, seven went home after the group stage, with two of the 3 survivors coming out of a group of four Middle Eastern teams.

The World Cup situation has a simple answer. Rather than reduce competition (ejecting Australia has almost zero chance anyway), or contemplate the farcical notion of splitting West Asia entirely from the rest, Asia should embrace more competition. When Australia joined Asia, the expectation was that Asia’s final spot would be a playoff with Oceania. That occurred in 2010 when Bahrain lost to New Zealand, only to be dropped for 2014 when FIFA decided the two inter-continental playoffs should be randomly drawn. Asia copped South America where Jordan lost to Uruguay. Now is the time Asia seize their destiny and guarantee a full fifth spot by bringing Oceania into the fold. It’s a joke of a region, containing only New Zealand and 10 tiny Pacific island nations. There’s a reason Australia were desperate for decades to leave. With the Asian Cup expanding to 24 teams for the 2019 edition, and an expanded qualifying path for the 2018 World Cup, it makes even more sense to add Oceania to the mix to make a broader confederation representing all of Asia and the Pacific.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

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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

Belgium and Saudi Arabia – the friendly farce continues

9 September 2014

Liege: Belgium 2 – Australia 0
London: Saudi Arabia 2 – Australia 3

Sometimes it makes you really wonder, why do we play these so-called “friendlies”? After a period of 10 months without a win under Ange Postecoglou, this morning’s match against Saudi Arabia was seen as one that a result must count. Ange’s one and only win came in his very first game – against Costa Rica late last year. Since then it’s been a succession of tough opponents against his mostly experimental teams. Fans have been patient.

Finally a win comes, and the stark reality is that if not for “the result”, there’s little to get excited about the game. Australia scored two goals in the first 5 minutes that any Saudi fan would label “soft” – just as we’re wont to do with most of our goals conceded. The goal first came from a break and was scrambled in at close range by Tim Cahill while the Mile Jedinak headed the second off a set piece thanks to some Saudi non-defending. Even the third goal, to restore a two goal cushion, came from a poorly defended set piece.

The Saudis could quite easily think that if not for the first 5 minutes, they won the game 2-1. The truth is Australia dominated much of the first half, even without troubling the goal-keeper that often. Problem is that with that 2-goal buffer, the natural tendency is to take fewer risks anyway, so containment became the scenario. To properly evaluate and test the team, it would have been much preferable had the score stayed 0-0 a bit longer.

In contrast to the first half, the second half was both rubbish and a showcase of when the farcical nature of these “farclies” become even more evident. The cavalcade of substitutions – by both teams – rendered the match process as almost entirely pointless. Giving players some experience is one thing; giving the team a competitive match another. The commentators even talk of a non-competitive environment when it comes refereeing decisions – that they’d be stricter if the match was a “competitive” one. How some matches will prepare Australia for the Asian Cup is a mystery. Quite simply, it wasn’t a match in any recognised form experienced at a competitive level.

This was the second farclie in 5 days, with the other against Belgium. That was a 2-0 loss in which Belgium’s class was simply too good and their defence easily contained Australia’s attack forays. Even though a little bit of slopping defending contributed to the goals, it quite easily could have been more, so a fair result.

The ever present issue – as highlighted in both games – is the defence. Australia has conceded at least two goals in their last 5 matches, and no clean sheets since Costa Rica. Plenty of new players given starts so some of this can be forgiven in these two matches. Of the new players that were given a good run, Massimo Luongo was the clear standout in midfield with his “little maestro” qualities. He was good against Ecuador before the World Cup and it was a big surprise he went unused during the Cup.

Both games also saw controversial refereeing decisions. Chris Herd’s high boot in the opening minutes nailed a Belgium player in the stomach in which no card was given. In a “competitive” match, it’s a red. In a farclie, we don’t want to make it more farcical by rendering one team a man short for almost the entire match. Except, not punishing the player does make it farcical, as the match became quite dirty with a serious of “square ups”. Mitch Langerak brought down a Saudi in his match in which he did get a yellow. Despite Andy Harper musing that the referee would have shown red had it been a “competitive” match, the foul was within the box, so no goal chance denied. In fact, a better one was awarded via the penalty kick. This is FIFA’s ridiculous “triple punishment” rule that’s been allowed to creep into the game. It will never be restored to its original purpose with muppets like Harper continuing to propagate FIFA’s folly.

With farcical refereeing and farcical conditions of these games, something must be done to classify a particular type of match outside of tournaments and qualifiers so that it be treated, and recorded, as a “competitive match”. The old days there was a reference to “A-Internationals”. For the sake of simplicity, how about Football Internationals that allow just the 3 subs and accurate refereeing. The option for the lesser match, the existing friendly or “farclie”, is an Exhibition or a Practice Match. These matches allow for the myriad of substitutions, and also, except for violent acts, allow a red-carded player to be substituted. That way you penalise the player without affecting the nature of the match.