Russia 2018 – World Cup Preview, Predictions & Australia’s chances

15 June 2018

“I will do it my own way.” With those words at his initial press conference, out went the old ways of previous coach Ange Postecoglou, and in come the new ways of coach Bert van Marwijk. So much for changing the landscape, or leaving a legacy, as was Postcoglou’s mission. It was always a fool’s policy that Postecoglou set, and actively encouraged by elitists in the media, that a national team can be moulded into a permanent style. National teams are representative, meaning player options are often limited, not bought or recruited from anywhere, so strengths across the field can vary through the years.

FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 Logo

With that, it was also pleasing to hear van Marwijk say “it’s important we play in a way that fits the players, and “you cannot play in a way that players cannot do.” Australia struggled through World Cup qualifying primarily because of Postecoglou’s enforced doctrine. The possession and pressing game, and always playing out from the back, was exploited, with the leaky defence never to be fixed, and experimentation with team selection never ending.

In the four internationals van Marwijk has controlled the Socceroos since his appointment late January, things are slowly improving. A 4-1 loss in Norway was followed by a 0-0 against a quality Colombian team in London, then a 4-0 win over Czechia in St Polten, Austria. Even though Czechia appeared in holiday mode and Colombia had plenty of chances to win easily (including a penalty saved and hitting the post twice), Australia looked much better on the ball in both of those games, and finished their World Cup preparations with a 2-1 over Hungary in Budapest. That was strange game in which all goals came from mistakes: Hungary’s goal-keeper fluffed a shot from range by Daniel Arzani, Hungary equalised after Trent Sainsbury’s headed back-pass went straight into the net, while Hungary responded with an own goal of their own.

Speaking of Daniel Arzani, the 19 year old was a shock inclusion into the World Cup squad. Barely with 6 months of club football under him at Melbourne City, he’s now threatening for a starting spot in Russia. His inclusion has shown a preference towards the trickier, speedier and more skilful players in van Marwijk’s teams – evidence he sees (realistically) that the overall playing strength is not at the required level to take on these pedigreed World Cup teams head on, so he’ll rely more on individual brilliance and a counter attacking game. As he says, play to the players’ strengths, not force something unusual on them or beyond their capabilities. If he can sort out the defensive frailties further, then we could in for a surprise result or two.

Can Australia reach the knockout phase?

If you take a direct form line from Russia’s 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia in the opening game, it won’t be easy. Saudi Arabia, with van Marwijk at the helm, qualified ahead of Australia. Van Marwijk then quit after negotiations to renew his contract broke down, and now Australia is lucky to have secured his services for the tournament. Although, Australia handled the Saudis quite comfortably in qualifying, are arguably a more talented team, and now have a more astute and flexible coach than previously.

France is Australia’s first match, and while the French are notoriously slow to start a tournament, no risks will be taken. Remember, it doesn’t matter when you score your points to qualify for the knockout phase, as long as you score them. With France likely to beat Denmark and Peru as well, essentially it will come down to those matches. A narrow loss to France would be sufficient, and then it’s a matter of trying to gain 4 points from the other two matches, or 6 points to guarantee it.

Denmark qualified relatively easily behind Poland in a rather weak Group E, and then disposed of Ireland in the playoffs. They look the standard, solid Scandinavian team – teams Australia generally have handled well in the past. Peru was South America’s fifth best team and qualified thanks to a 2-0 playoff over New Zealand. Even with a draw (or loss) to Denmark, the fate of Australia is likely to come down to that match, and while Australia generally struggles against South American teams, as they say in the classics, if you can’t beat Peru, you don’t deserve to be in the knockout phase.

World Cup Predictions

It’s difficult to have much confidence in Australia progressing unless those defensive problems are fixed. Scoring could be a problem too if “no goal scorers” is the second favourite at $6.50 to be Australia’s top scorer. Tomi Juric is favourite at $6. Best case scenario to qualify is a 50/50 proposition. If Australia qualified for the round of 16, the likely opponent would be Argentina. Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria are the other options.

As for the World Cup winner, the draw is always the best guide, along with general form, especially through qualifying. France, Spain, Portugal and Argentina are in the top half, so some will be eliminated before the latter knockout stages. In the lower half, Germany (who won all games in qualifying) and Brazil will steer clear of each other if they win their respective groups, while Belgium is the likely spoiler, and it would be great to see a new team win. While I certainly will be hoping for the Belgians, the tournament seems set up so well for Germany to go two in a row, with Brazil their likely opponents in the final. Given the 7-1 thrashing the Germans handed Brazil in the semi finals four years ago, a repeat match-up would be quite an exciting prospect, even if both teams have won their fair share of World Cup spoils over the decades.

Australia’s Schedule (AET)

20:00 16 June France vs Australia
22:00 21 June Denmark vs Australia
00:00 27 June Australia vs Peru (Tuesday night)

Australia’s World Cup Squad

Goalkeepers: Brad Jones, Mat Ryan, Danny Vukovic

Defenders: Aziz Behich, Milos Degenek, Matt Jurman, Mark Milligan, James Meredith, Josh Risdon, Trent Sainsbury

Midfielders: Jackson Irvine, Mile Jedinak, Massimo Luongo, Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic

Forwards: Daniel Arzani, Tim Cahill, Tomi Juric, Robbie Kruse, Mat Leckie, Jamie Maclaren, Andrew Nabbout, Dimitri Petratos

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Australia to play France, Peru & Denmark at Russia 2018; Ange Postecoglou quits

10 December 2018

France, Peru and Denmark will be Australia’s opponents at the World Cup in Russia next year, and if you believe the FIFA rankings, Australia has little chance to progress from the group. In truth, the FIFA rankings are as farcical as FIFA itself, so the approximate 30 point gap to all three teams is not a reflection on the true evenness of the group. The fact Peru, which struggled to finish fifth in South America and advanced only by a playoff against New Zealand, is ranked 11th, proves the absurdity of the rankings. France is ranked 9th, Denmark 12th and Australia 39th. France will obviously be tough to beat for all 3 teams, while Australia should feel itself comfortable against both Peru and Denmark.

wcq171115congratsThat Australia plays France first up doesn’t really matter. Despite the hyperbole of “you must win your first game”, there’s no extra points for winning the first game. It’s about accumulating enough points from all three games. In fact, an upset is more likely in the first game when teams haven’t quite gelled or fully prepared. Spain lost their first game in 2010 before winning the World Cup, and we all remember Cameroon upsetting eventual finalists Argentina in 1990. If Australia loses to France, then a win against Peru gets it to the same position it was in 2006 – 3 points after 2 games and most likely only a draw required against Denmark in the final game to reach the knockout stage. That probably will be the second toughest game as the Danes showed some stunning results in qualifying, including a 4-0 win over Poland and thumping Ireland in the playoffs.

Australia entered the World Cup draw without a coach, and won’t get a coach until early next year, after the “will he” or “won’t he” saga with Ange Postecoglou continuing his coaching career with the Socceroos ending in he won’t. This seemed always the case after he never denounced media reports speculating about his departure, nor showed an enthusiasm to continue coaching – something particularly odd after just qualifying your team for a World Cup. He cited a couple of things, notably his family and the pressure of the job. He’s had two children while coach to now be a father of 3 sons, and the constant travel would have been unsettling. After overseas coaches qualified Australia the last 3 times, Postecoglou also said the pressure was amplified in that he didn’t want the legacy of an Australian coach failing and the harm it would do for future aspirants being given a chance.

Sydney journalist Roy Masters raised an interesting point on the ABC that Postecoglou is the sort of coach that operates best on positive vibes, and with Football Federation Australia failing to back him when he was being criticised by sections of the media, he began to resent the working environment and, recalling the time he was sacked as national youth coach, figured it was best to get out now – possibly even to stick it to the FFA. Indeed, at the press conference, FFA CEO David Gallop still seemed confused about Postecoglou’s decision and, of course, Postecoglou wanted to stick it to his critics too. You saw this petulant stubbornness manifest on the field with his obsession for the team to always play out the back. No kick outs from the goalie at all – even if a player was in acres of space on a wing. This almost crucified the team as it made them so predictable. Opponents began to pressure them high, and often win possession in dangerous situations. Thankfully Australia could recover in the Asian 5th Placed playoff when Syria managed to score early from such a situation.

Then there’s Postecoglou’s idea of “leaving a legacy”, He’s now realised it’s nonsense. Even if he coached at Russia 2018, the next Socceroos coach will do as he pleases. He’ll certain say it’s ok for the goalie to kick out! Heck, he might even try a counter-attacked game-plan rather than a high possession one. Postecoglou would have also been frustrated with a lack of control. Unlike at a club where he can recruit, build and mould a team, with the national team his playing stock is limited and, even more frustrating, is the lack of a daily process to coach. Finally, he almost certainly has a job lined up, most likely in Japan. Their season runs February to November and apparently Yokohama F Marinos has him on their radar.ange-quits3It’s a sad end to a period that should have the country still in wild jubilation. Australia resoundingly overcame Honduras, winning the final leg and the tie overall 3-1, thanks to a hat-trick by captain Mile Jedinak (a free kick and two penalties). It meant five Asian teams have qualified for a World Cup for the first time ever and, more importantly, Australia gave something back to the Asian Football Confederation for accepting Australia in the first place. Our entry was never meant to be an easy ride and to take a spot from one of the other Asian teams; it was meant to help boost the region as a whole, qualify five teams and hopefully gain an automatic fifth. That Australia had to do it the hard way – through the playoffs, and after a mammoth 22 games – meant they fulfilled this duty themselves, and made qualifying far more rewarding.

Qualifying after such a tough campaign really does add more mystery to Postecoglou’s decision to quit. It really should have inspired him to stay on. As much as he thinks leaving early doesn’t detract from his legacy, it does. At Brazil 2014 he lost all three games, and quite convincingly too, so surely you’d expect a man of his pride to want to try reverse that. As someone that thrives on a challenge, the real legacy would be to take this team to a new level and qualify Australia for the knockout stage. As it stands, Postecoglou’s World Cup record is three blots, and you can add a fourth for leaving the Socceroos with mission incomplete.

Ange Postecoglou’s Socceroos record

49 games, 22 wins, 12 draws, 15 losses
Winner Asian Cup 2015
Qualified for World Cup 2018 

Match Report – Australia vs Honduras

Ange Postecoglou Quits – Report, Analysis and Press Conference