Sydney: Australia 1 – Iraq 0
Remember FIFA’s silver goal system? Probably not. It was a softening of the golden goal. It was a device used that would turn extra time into sudden death. First goal scored, you win. It proved anti-climatic and – given the capricious nature of the sport – often unfair. Euro 96 was the first major tournament to use it, with Germany winning the final over the Czech Republic by such a method. Australia benefited most prominently in the Confederations Cup of 1997, beating Uruguay in the semi finals. In order to appease dissenters, FIFA tried the silver goal. A goal scored will still see the match continue until either half time or full time of extra time to allow the opposing team a chance to rescue the game. Greece was the most famous to use the rule, winning Euro 2004. Really, it was as silly a method as it sounded.
Last night’s qualification was a match over two games. Failing to beat Iraq meant Australia had to rely on Oman not winning in Jordan. Approaching half time of the affair, at the 83rd the minute of Australia’s match, up pops Josh Kennedy for the most golden of goals. It felt golden. Of course, it was silver until “half time”. Then it was truly golden and Australia was off to Brazil. For the record, Jordan, beat Oman 1-0 to have sent Australia through regardless of Iraq, potentially with just two wins from their 8 group games. While struggling to win, Australia were still difficult to defeat. It was the 5 draws in total, the two against Japan in particular, that made the difference for Australia. Whereas the remaining teams, except for Jordan at home, all lost their matches to Japan. Japan proved a great ally for Australia in the end. Jordan’s effort gets it third spot and a place in the playoffs against Uzbekistan.
Kennedy’s strike continued the trend of actual strikers, brought late onto the field, to score the goals. Yes, football is that simple. Until Kennedy was brought on, Australia played with no recognised strikers. Tim Cahill – most dangerous as a late running attacking midfield – was again marooned up front, out of his comfort zone. Outside the 15 seconds of play that brought Kennedy’s goal, Australia’s attack was woeful. While credit must be given for the tough opponent of Iraq, the bumpy pitch and Sydney’s rain, there was simply no cohesion or ideas. Too often Australia would try inter-play in cramped space along the wings. Runs were rarely made to good space in the centre of the field, something coach Holger Osieck noted after the game. Had this match ended 0-0, or heaven forbid a loss had Iraq not fluffed a very late chance, the match synopsis would be so damning. So match reviews should look at that first 75 minutes, rather than the ebullient fog of the last 10.
For all the trumpeting of the “settled starting eleven” of the last 3 games, they scored only one of the 6 goals scored in these matches. When actual strikers were brought on, the Socceroos were a different beast. It’s just the strikers’ presence that makes all the difference. Harassing the last line, which in turn creates more space. With Cahill so-called leading the line, he would drop back, allowing Iraq to play higher and compressing the space, also meaning any fast break down the wing would often see no one in the box. Let’s not forget the match that really saved Australia’s bacon in this campaign – away to Iraq. A goal down, Archie Thompson on, and Australia grab the 3 points. Had Iraq won that, they enter last night’s game a chance to qualify directly, meaning they’d not have sent a primarily U21 squad preparing for next week’s Youth World Cup in Turkey.
Credit to Osieck for making the switch to Kennedy. The Socceroo Realm expected he might use such a tactic to pinch a win in Japan had the scored remained 0-0. After Thompson’s impact last week in Melbourne, he’d have been the easy choice again. No, it was Kennedy, and off went a churlish Cahill. That Kennedy was the saviour did wonders in quelling the return of any divine right Cahill might have with his place in the team. Facts are that Cahill was mostly ineffective, so Kennedy replacing him allowed a different focal point – especially in terms of style of play. Kennedy has no interest tracking back for balls. It’s all about positioning and losing markers for potential crosses. That he was so unmarked for his goal was testament to his ability and strategy of the substitution.
Osieck was also right to persist with the older, experienced players. National teams are representative by nature, so the best players available are selected. You don’t experiment in key matches. In Osieck’s defence against criticism of not using younger players, he has tried them. They haven’t work. Dump Lucas Neill and Sasa Ognenokvsi, who replaces them? Thwaite, Spiranovic, North? No one has stepped up. Also in Osieck’s defence, Tom Oar has made his way into the team, while Tomas Rogic was brought on after 60 minutes to break open the game. Then there’s Robbie Kruse – now a permanent fixture. It’s about evolution, not revolution.
Looking to Brazil, Australia has key concerns. This penchant for midfielders as strikers must stop. Remember the outrage Australians felt when Pim Verbeek tried this away to Japan in the qualifiers for 2010 and in the disastrous World Cup match against Germany? It was felt as un-Australian. The “have a go” mentality was sacrificed for no real benefit. So what’s change? Problems are not erased by persisting with them. Two weeks ago against Japan it mostly worked, simply because Japan were on the attack and allowed Australia the space and a counter-attacking game. Against Jordan and Iraq, teams that chose to sit back, the balance then must be skewed forward. At least provide the adaptability. Remember Guus Hiddink’s early substitution of Tony Popovic, a defender, for an attacker in the Uruguay Game? This is not even astute awareness, it’s obvious. Osieck should have gone to Kennedy and co much earlier. There will be times Australia will need to take on high calibre opponents, like at the World Cup itself, even from the start of a game, when Australia would hope to reach the second phase. For Holger not to have Australia as sufficiently prepared, that would be un-German.
It would be remiss not to mention the true bonanza of this campaign – being in Asia! Even if not qualifying, it’s a success. We always wanted a fairer shot, not so much an easier one, and with the Asian teams improving and Australia slightly declining, that’s the shot we got. If the future sees us miss one out of three World Cups, that’s good. That means Asia is improving, so we must improve. I hope Australia is never like Mexico or USA dominating a weak region – then doing little at a World Cup. I want to see Asia carried forward with us. The day we beat Japan in a World Cup final, and after beating Iran in a semi, that’s the day we can say we’ve made it.
In this campaign, the loss in Jordan was pivotal. It essentially made every remaining match live. Not so much life and death, just live, as a sustenance of our life. As part of the broader a football community, it’s been pleasing to see this reality infiltrating further and further into our psyche. The idea of “we should be beating these Asian teams like this (ie: 4-0 against Jordan)” still heard on the airwaves, is evaporating. Grinding out 1-0 wins is perfectly fine, and realistic. In the past 3 games, Australia displayed the extremes of achieving results. Then there were extremes at the other end. Like the sudden 2-0 deficit to Oman that needed to be rescued, and losing in Jordan. That’s fine. We wanted exactly this from being in Asia. Fear not that the journey suddenly had great obstacles. Surmounting those obstacles made the journey all the more satisfying.
Final Table Group B
Points, GD, Record
Jap 17, +11, 5-2-1
Aus 13, +5, 3-4-1
Jor 10, -9, 3-1-4
Oma 9, -3, 2-3-3
Irq 5, -4, 1-2-5
Final Table Group A
Points, GD, Record
Irn 16, +6, 5-1-2
Kor 14, +6, 4-2-2
Uzb 14, +5 4-2-2
Qat 7, -8, 2-1-5
Leb 5, -9, 1-2-5
The final match day in Group A was a blinder. Iran needed to win in Korea, they did. Uzbekistan then needed to beat Qatar by six goals, they didn’t. They won 5-1 after conceding early at home to Qatar. Let’s hope either Jordan or Uzbekistan can get past that fifth-placed South American team and expand the Asian family in Brazil.
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