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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Rio 2016 – Preview & Predictions

05 August 2016

Will Rio 2016 finally be the Olympics Australia doesn’t choke? Despite the hype generated from the swag of gold medals won since Sydney 2000, we have actually under-achieved as a nation, particularly in the pool. While we were highly critical of the 1 gold won at London 2012, in terms of predicted success, it was actually no worse than Beijing 2008.

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Predictions in 2008 – notably from the American Sports Illustrated magazine – had Australia winning 12 gold medals in the pool as a minimum. If everything went right, it was 15, or even 17. While the rest of the world kept swimming personal bests in race after race, Australia kept producing flop after flop. Even worse was the jingoistic false pride from the team and the media at the minor medals won. Sorry, we, as a nation, are not proud of silver when we, as taxpayers, pump millions into a sports program and we, as sports fans, expect our athletes to perform to their abilities.

You can go back as far as Barcelona in 1992 for failures in the pool, often with the team returning half the gold medals they should have won. For all the fuss of Kieren Perkins winning the 1500m in Barcelona, he should have won the 400m too. Atlanta was similarly bereft of gold medals until two in the final days. Athens 2004, and especially Sydney 2000, are more illustrious failures. Whereas in 2012, Australia went in with only one or two gold medal favourites, and finished with one. Ironically, that was the surprise from the women’s’ 4×100 freestyle relay on the first night.

Let’s hope Rio is the salvation. Noted data analysts Gracenote are predicting, right now, 8 gold medals from the pool and 16 gold medals across all sports. A few months ago it was 18 gold medals. Our previous best was 17 in Athens. Sports Illustrated is suggesting 11 in the pool – an exaggeration this time – and 20 overall. The good news is those in the pool should be unbeatable if they produce near their personal bests. While one or two might be unlucky to be ambushed by a freak rival performance on the day, the key point is to produce the times. Too often the excuse of “it’s a racing meet” is offered for poor times, when really it should be no excuse. Swim your own race.

AUSTRALIA’S GOLD MEDAL CHANCES

Swimming

Minimum: 6
Optimum: 8
Maximum: 11

Women’s 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle, 100 backstroke, 200 backstroke and 4*100 freestyle, and men’s 100 freestyle, 100 and 200 backstroke are the key events.

Curiously, Cate Campbell broke the 100m world record only a few weeks ago. Let’s hope she hasn’t peaked. She’s miles in front of the world in that event, and favoured in the 50m, and so are the women in the 4x100f relay. Emily Seebohm and Mitch Larkin are world champions in the two backstroke events and, at the minimum, should win one of them. Cameron McEvoy in the men’s 100f is also the world champion and clearly the fastest in the world. There could be one or two surprises, like Mack Horton in the men’s 400f.

Basketball

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 0
Maximum: 1

Can the women finally win gold? Only if someone else beats the USA along the way. That’s how Australia won its world championship several years ago, and then beat Russia for gold. The men can only hope for a minor medal.

Canoe/Kayak

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 1
Maximum: 2

Jessica Fox, silver in 2012, is a double world champion. Her slalom event can be tricky – one mistake and you are gone – so difficult to bank a certain gold here. On the flat water, the men occasionally snag a gold, and won gold in the k4*1000 in London.

Cycling

Minimum: 1
Optimum: 3
Maximum: 7

Plenty of chances with not too many guarantees. Anna Meares (sprint champion in 2012) is in three events and hopefully she wins one (the keirin the most likely). Annette Edmondson is a solid chance in the omnium, as are both women and men (especially women) in the team pursuit. BMX has multiple recent world champion Caroline Buchanan, while Sam Willoughby was one in the past. Finally, either race road could spring a surprise.

Diving

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 0
Maximum: 1

Occasionally diving delivers a gold. Syncro events or women’s platform the best chances.

Equestrian

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 0
Maximum: 1

Cross country and 3-day eventing are Australia’s best chances. It’s been quiet for a few Olympics so maybe it’s time for another gold.

Football

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 0
Maximum: 1

The men didn’t qualify; the women are on the rise. A gold would be a wonderful surprise, and an extra challenge after already losing their first match in Rio. A 2-0 loss to Canada means they must beat Germany in the next match. A draw means they’ll need to rely on other results, while a loss means they are out of the Olympics on the first official day of competition. Zimbabwe is the fourth team in the group and are expected to be easy beats for all teams after already losing 6-1 to Germany.

Golf

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 0
Maximum: 1

Who cares? Ridiculous event to include. Men a chance.

Hockey

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 1
Maximum: 1

The men are a strong chance – as long as they don’t choke. Starting with the infamous failure in Montreal in 1976, for 40 years they’ve entered the Olympics as one of the favourites, if not the favourite, and returned 1 gold medal. The last two Olympics they fell apart in the semi finals after leading at half time. They could be the biggest chokers of any Australian team or individual in any sport, ever!

Rowing

Minimum: 1
Optimum: 2
Maximum: 3

Five minor medals four years ago means it’s time for gold. Kim Brennan (nee Crow) dominates women’s sculls, and the men are good chance in the fours and quad sculls.

Rugby Sevens

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 1
Maximum: 1

Women are world champions; men could surprise.

Sailing

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 1
Maximum: 3

The sport that saved our skin in London. The men’s 470s (Mathew Belcher & Will Ryan) and 49er (Nathan Outteridge & Iain Jensen) are reigning Olympic champions. Tom Burton in the Laser an outside chance. Sailing can be fickle so best not to bank too heavily here.

Shooting

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 0
Maximum: 1

Another sport that occasionally produces a gold, usually in the trap events.

Tennis

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 0
Maximum: 1

Another sport that should not be the Games. Only hopes are doubles and mixed doubles events.

Track and Field

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 0
Maximum: 2

Fabrice Lapierre in the long jump and Jared Tallent in the walking events the main chances. Tallent belatedly won gold from the 50km at London 2012 after the Russian winner was eventually disqualified for drug use.

Triathlon

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 0
Maximum: 1

Either men or women a chance.

Water Polo

Minimum: 0
Optimum: 0
Maximum: 1

Women a chance.

Total

Minimum: 8
Optimum: 17
Maximum: 39

Remember, that maximum is everything in every event for every chance going right. This obviously will not happen. In fact, I’ve already allowed for this eventuality by not assigning two gold medals to team events like rugby and hockey. It would be highly unlikely both would win. If you cut the difference between optimum and maximum (22) in half (11), then the more realistic maximum is 28.

Personally I want the swimming team to excel. Ten gold in the pool and winning the medal tally would be perfect. Especially that the swimmers that are favoured to win – Campbell, Seebohm, McEvoy and Larkin – are decent, humble people. Speaking of decent and humble, Jessica Fox in the kayak slalom would be the most exciting gold of all to win. She’s won of the few people I follow on twitter. Anna Meares deserves another gold on the velodrome, while Annette Edmondson deserves her first.

OTHER NATIONS

Of course, the Olympics is not all about other Australia. Personally, I love to look elsewhere and absorb as much as I can. Other than the obvious of Usain Bolt to win the 100m and 200m for a third time, American swimmer Katie Ledecky will be the one to watch. She won 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m at the world titles last year, and has demolished world records, particularly in the distance events. There’s no 1500m for women in the Olympics, and the 200m will be much tougher in an Olympic year. The 400m and 800m are still there, as other relay swims. She could finished with 4 gold medals.

The athlete for which I’ll have the most interest is Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte in the 100m breaststroke. She won in London as a 15 year old and it would be great to see her double up. The biggest threat would be Russia’s Yuliya Efimova, who beat her at the world championships last year. Incredibly, Efimova’s status is not 100% certain, with the IOC still to confirm her eligibility to compete in Rio. Efimova is contesting the grounds for the original doping offence (that she already served) so claims she should not be part of the IOC’s directive that Russia bans all athletes ever sanctioned for drug use.

RUSSIA

The right decision has been made that individuals never caught doping are allowed to compete. To ban an entire nation is ridiculous, and speaks more of the sanctimonious and reactionary approach by WADA, and the public as a whole. WADA is more concerned with its own power than individual athletes, sets ridiculous levels for athletes to prove innocence, and uses the Court of Arbitration for Sport to enforce its decisions. Realise that the CAS adjudicates on the jurisdiction of the appealing body (WADA, in this case). It’s not a true court where guilt must be proved, meaning that case involving WADA typically goes in favour of WADA.

You saw it first hand with the Essendon scandal in the AFL. Impossible to convict under the AFL’s jurisdiction of a stronger burden of proof, WADA steps in (because the AFL is a signatory) with its jurisdiction of almost non-existent proof, and the decision is reversed. There’s also Maria Sharapova’s case of ostensibly being allowed to take an illegal drug so WADA could eventually grandstand once she tests positive.

Even despite the narcissistic influence of WADA, it simply would have been wrong to ban individuals that never doped, and especially never had their samples fiddled by the Russian government. Think if it was Australia’s track and field athletes caught in systematic doping, and it was decided all the swimmers and cyclists should be banned with them. We’d be outraged, and rightfully so!

MORE INFORMATION & LINKS

Sports Illustrated says Australia to win 20 gold medals among 50 overall. Gold medals:

Cycling – Sprint – Matthew Glaetzer
Cycling – Keirin – Anna Meares
Cycling – BMX – Caroline Buchanan
Cycling – Men Team Pursuit
Hockey – Men
Rowing – Men Quad sculls
Rowing – Women Single sculls – Kim Brennan
Rowing – Women Quad sculls
Rugby – Women
Swimming – Men 100f – Cameron McEvoy
Swimming – Men 400f – Mack Horton
Swimming – Men 100b – Mitch Larkin
Swimming – Men 200b – Mitch Larkin
Swimming – Women 50f – Cate Campbell
Swimming – Women 100f – Cate Campbell
Swimming – Women 100b – Emily Seebohm
Swimming – Women 200b – Emily Seebohm
Swimming – Women 200bf – Madeline Groves
Swimming – Women 4x100f relay
Swimming – Women 4x100m relay

Interestingly they rank Jessica Fox in kayak slalom only for bronze and have totally ignored sailing and the women’s pursuit team in cycling. The women’s 200bf is the surprise inclusion for swimming. The women’s 4x100m relay seems optimistic to beat the USA for gold. Like I said earlier, there could be surprises, and SI’s 11 gold medals match my maximum.

http://www.si.com/olympics/2016/08/01/rio-2016-olympics-medal-picks-predictions-projected-medal-count

 

Gracenote are giving us Fox, a sailing gold and, surprisingly, a shooting gold, while dumping Seebohm in the 200br and three cycling gold medals.

Canoe Slalom – K1 J. Fox
Canoe Sprint M K4 1000m
Cycling – Track M Team Pursuit
Hockey M Team
Rowing W Single Sculls K. Brennan
Rugby Sevens W Team
Sailing M 470 M. Belcher/Ryan
Shooting M 50m Rifle Prone W. Potent
Swimming M 100m Freestyle C. McEvoy
Swimming M 400m Freestyle M. Horton
Swimming M 100m Backstroke M. Larkin
Swimming M 200m Backstroke M. Larkin
Swimming W 50m Freestyle C. Campbell
Swimming W 100m Freestyle C. Campbell
Swimming W 100m Backstroke E. Seebohm
Swimming W 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay

http://sportsdemo1.gracenote.com/documentation/vmt#demo

The Australian Olympic Committee is predicting 13 gold medals among 37 medals overall. They’ve added two women’s cycling gold and stuck to the big chances elsewhere.

GOLD: Anna Meares (Cycling, Keirin), Annette Edmondson (Cycling, Omnuim), Women’s Team Pursuit (Cycling), Men’s hockey team, Kim Crow (Rowing, women’s single sculls), Mathew Belcher and Ryan Will (Sailing, 470), Mitch Larkin (Swimming, 100m backstroke, 200m backstroke), Cate Campbell (Swimming 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle), Emily Seebohm (Swimming 100m backstroke, 200m backstroke), women’s 4x100m freestyle relay (Swimming).

SILVER: Fabrice Lapierre (Athletic, long jump), Jared Tallent (Athletics, 50km walk), Kenith Wallace and Lachlan Tame (Canoe/Kayak, K2 1000m), Caroline Buchanan (Cycling, women’s BMX), Michael Mathews (Cycling, road race), Glenn O’Shea (Cycling, Omnium), men’s fours (rowing), men’s quadruple sculls (rowing), women’s rugby sevens team, Jason Waterhouse and Lisa Darmanin (Sailing, Nacra 17), Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen (Sailing, 49er), men’s 4×100 medley relay (Swimming), Cameron McEvoy (Swimming, 100m freestyle), Madison Wilson (Swimming, 100m backstroke), Casey Dellacqua (Tennis, women’s doubles), John Peers (Tennis, Men’s doubles).

BRONZE: Women’s basketball team, Anna Meares and Kaarle McCulloch (Cycling, team sprint), men’s team pursuit (Cycling), Samantha Mills and Esther Qin (Diving, 3m synchronised springboard), Tom Burton (Sailing, laser), women’s 4x100m medley relay (Swimming), men’s 4x200m freestyle relay (Swimming), Cate Campbell (Swimming, 100m freestyle), Jessica Ashwood (Swimming, 400m freestyle)

Melbourne Cup 2014 Preview

03 November 2014

For those new to the Socceroo Realm, the Olympic Games and the Melbourne Cup are my other two sporting passions. I’ve been to the Melbourne Cup every year since 1977, and would apparently have gone in 1976 had the weather prediction not been for heavy rain and storms.

It’s always a fascinating race, watching all these horses converge from different paths and, these days, from all over the world. While I’m no punter, I do make an exception for this great race. Because there’s 24 horses, you always get great value, even for a favourite. Since I’ve been old enough to bet, my average is a win every three years, which keeps me ahead. In the past 10 years, I’ve been hoping to land a big trifecta or first four.

Predicting the Melbourne Cup is an evolving process, with last year being a bit of a lesson. A rule I’ve followed for a long time is ignore horses that have failed in a previous Melbourne Cup. This rule is sound on the provision that “failed” truly means failed. The first three of 2013 of Fiorente, Red Cadeaux and Mount Athos were all return runners. The key is that Fiorente and Red Cadeaux did not exactly fail, with both running second in 2012 and 2011 respectively, while Mount Athos was an unlucky fifth in 2012. It could be excused to ignore Red Cadeaux as he did fail in 2012, finishing eighth.

Two other rules remain rock solid. Most of the field actually won’t run the trip, while those that can, some don’t have the class or, as with many Europeans, are plodders lacking the required acceleration. Other historical statistics can also be applied, notable age and weight. Only two 8yo horses have won, and that was so far in the past that’s irrelevant. No 9yo has won. The last horse with 58.5kg to win was Think Big in 1975. Makybe Diva in 2005 carried 58kg, which is effectively 60kg, if you consider mares typically get a 2kg allowance on the weight-for-age (WTA) scale. Since she’d won it twice prior, it was a realistic handicap.

Often there’s talk of horses “lugging weight” and that sort suggests a cruelty. Wrong. First, the days when Carbine carried over 65kg in the 1800s are long gone. Second, in handicaps, weak horses have their weight lowered, with top weights carrying their normal weight. In WTA races, older male horses carry 59kg, while mares get 57kg. In the Melbourne Cup, the top weighted horse is only 58.5, while the bottom weight is 51kg. If these respective horses raced in a Cox Plate, both would carry 59kg, meaning the bottom weight of Signoff in the Cup would simply have no chance against the top weight of Admire Rakti.

Speaking of Admire Rakti, there was some controversy that he was penalised “only” half a kilo for winning the Caulfield Cup. Again, this needs to be seen in the context of handicap allocations – to reduce weight of weaker horses, not to lug top horses with more and more. Since Admire Rakti was already top weight in the Melbourne Cup, there’s little room to assign more weight as he’d start exceeding his normal WFA weight. If he was only 53kg before the Caulfield Cup, he’d have got a penalty of 2kg most likely. Furthermore, the modern Melbourne Cup is more a “quality handicap”, with the weight range compressed, which again leaves little room to penalise heavily, and also means that any penalty given has a much greater effect.

Lead up races like the Herbert Power, the Metropolitan, Moonee Valley Cup, Geelong Cup and the Lexus Stakes – many of them are irrelevant. So, too, seems the Caulfield Cup. The last Melbourne Cup winner to come from the Caulfield Cup was Delta Blues in 2006. Many Melbourne Cup horses bypass the race for fear of a penalty, while other horses that target it do so because the Melbourne Cup is becoming so difficult to gain a start. Unless the horse was dominant in these lead-up races, don’t trust the form.

1 Admire Rakti (JPN) (Tomoyuki Umeda) 58.5 Z Purton 

Weight seems the only issue. Also, the Caulfield/Melbourne Cup double is difficult to achieve, and usually is done by a horse that won at Caulfield with a light weight so could cope with the penalty into the Melbourne Cup. Since Admire Rakti was not penalised heavily, he remains a great chance.

2 Cavalryman (GB) (Saeed bin Suroor) 57 C Williams

Was here in 2012 and failed. Even if overseas form is better, age now a problem.

3 Fawkner (Robert Hickmott) 57 N Hall

Didn’t quite run it out last year when sixth. Seems to have improved has been trained specifically for it. It’s a weaker field too, it could all add up.

4 Red Cadeaux (GB) (Ed Dunlop) 57 G Mosse

Age against him. His form overseas is well down compared to previous year.

5 Protectionist (Ger) (Andreas Wohler) 56.5 R Moore

Every single one of the 5 panelists on Sky’s Racing Retro show has picked this. The rare time German horses come to Australia they generally perform quite well. The main problem was the run in the Herbert Power. That race is never a guide and he was still beaten by average horses. Signoff was ahead of him and is in the Cup with 5kg less. As much as the Sky team were dubious of the Lexus form (Signoff’s win on Saturday), then you must be even more dubious of the Herbert Power. All that race proved is that the horse had acclimatised. Distance also a query. The track will be firm, which could be another problem.

6 Sea Moon (GB) (Robert Hickmott) 56.5 T Berry

It would have been treated as a scratching had it not been scratched

7 Seismos (IRE) (Marco Botti) 56 C Newitt

Too slow. The only positive is the stable has done well with Dandino last year and the unfancied Jackalberry (third in 2012).

8 Junoob (GB) (Chris Waller) 55.5 H Bowman

The Metropolitan is traditionally a rubbish guide. Didn’t do enough in the Caulfield Cup either.

9 Royal Diamond (IRE) (Johnny Murtagh) 55.5 S Arnold

Stablemate of Mutual Regard. It’s here for the sight-seeing.

10 Gatewood (GB) (John Gosden) 55 W Buick

Didn’t exactly fire in Australia 2 years ago. Form dubious, a distance query and track will be firm.

11 Mutual Regard (IRE) (Johnny Murtagh) 55 D Oliver

Won the Ebor (UK’s “Melbourne Cup”) well, which can be a guide (Purple Moon 2nd in 2007). Damien Oliver on board is a good sign. Only issue is acclimatisation. Generally it’s best to see them run in Australia first.

12 Who Shot The Barman (NZ) (Chris Waller) 55 G Boss

Under the odds because of its name. Caulfield Cup was poor. Seems to lack the class.

13 Willing Foe (USA) (Saeed Bin Suroor) 55 J McDonald

Lightly raced recently and difficult to line-up the form. Seems to be a plodder. Has it acclimatised? So many questions.

14 My Ambivalent (IRE) (Roger Varian) 54.5 A Atenzi

“Mathematically”, should win by four lengths. Has the class, with form around Admire Rakti, maybe even surpassing him, and she has 4kg less too. Injury concerns (scratched from the Caulfield Cup and training affected) and is flighty – even for a mare. That’s doubly bad for an international mare, as they have never fired, and are rarely brought out. Overall, mares have a poor record in the Melbourne Cup unless they have some robustness to them.

15 Precedence (NZ) (Bart and James Cummings) 54.5 M Rodd

Failed all previous three attempts, likely to do so again, especially with his age

16 Brambles (NZ) (Peter Moody) 54 L Nolen

Lacks the class and probably the speed

17 Mr O’ Ceirin (NZ) (Ciaron Maher) 54 M Zahra

Really lacks the class

18 Au Revoir (IRE) (Andre Fabre) 53.5 G Schofield

They ran past him in the Moonee Valley Cup

19 Lidari (FR) (Peter Moody) 53.5 B Melham

Lacks the class and a distance concern

20 Opinion (IRE) (Chris Waller) 53.5 T Angland

Form suggests too slow

21 Araldo (GB) (Michael Moroney) 53 D Dunn

More than anything, probably lacks the speed

22 Lucia Valentina (NZ) (Kris Lees) 53 K McEvoy

A 4yo lightly framed mare. That spells danger. There’s also the distance. Distance was a concern in the Caulfield Cup. She was targeted for that race and ran into third thanks to a slow pace. Now she’s tossed into a fast Melbourne Cup over an extra 800m and expected to win? There’s a big spruik about her because of her brilliance.

23 Unchain My Heart (Hayes and Dabernig) 51.5 D Yendall

Out of form and too slow

24 Signoff (IRE) (Darren Weir) 51 J Moriera

Ran away with the Lexus Stakes – reminiscent of Shocking in 2009, which then won the Melbourne Cup. Malucky Day ran second in 2010 after a similar performance in the Lexus. The light weight makes the horse so appetising. The issue is the class. The Lexus field was even less worse than the average fields of its other lead-ups. The stable says the horse has been trained specifically for a Lexus and then a tilt at the Cup. We’ll see if this meticulous planning has worked.

Summary

I can’t go past Admire Rakti. Only historical statistics surrounding weight is against him. Even then, it’s not of great relevance given only in 2005 Makybe Diva won with arguably a greater imposition and over a field with a less compressed weight range, and he’s only carrying 58.5. He’s world class, he runs the distance and he’s Japanese. Those three factors stand alone.

From there, almost every horse has a reason that they cannot win. The two with the least negatives are Fawkner and Signoff. The most likely of the Europeans seems to be Mutual Regard, while I’ll certainly throw a twenty on My Ambivalent.

1 Admire Rakti
2 Signoff
3 Fawkner
4 Mutual Regard

Outsider: My Ambivalent

I’ll place a big win bet on Admire Rakti, smaller bets on Fawkner (I always bet the greys) and My Ambivalent. The first four will go into a boxed trifecta and a boxed first four. A special trifecta will include Admire Rakti to win, with either Signoff and Fawkner second, and the field in the third.

Remember: Enjoy the race first, and only bet as much as you want to lose!

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

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