Two draws keep the group interesting

12 October 2016

Why is it the only goals Australia ever concede are “soft goals”? So it was for the second World Cup qualifier in a row that Australia conceded in the first 5 minutes. The first against Saudi Arabia last week and the second against Japan last night. Naturally, they were soft! Clearly there’s still a small superiority complex Australia has over Asian teams. In truth, the Saudi goal was a brilliant dismantling of our defence with quick passing and well timed runs, and the Japanese goal was a brilliant strategic goal created by pressuring our often over-casual possession of the ball and breaking free on goal. There was nothing soft about them. Indeed! If Australia scored them, we’d be marvelling at the brilliance.

Australia's coach Ange Postecoglou not entirely happy after 1-1 draw at home vs Japan in World Cup qualifier, Melbourne, 2016-10-11

Australia’s coach Ange Postecoglou not entirely happy after a 1-1 draw at home vs Japan. Image: AAP

Both games finished in a draw, 2-2 in Riyadh and 1-1 in Melbourne. Both games also finished in a similar pattern with Australia lucky not to lose both. Australia ending up taking the lead in Riyadh on 17 minutes and felt aggrieved at conceding a goal 8 minutes later. Except, not longer later, the Saudis missed a one-on-one attempt with the ball cleared off the line after being partially saved by Matt Ryan. Likewise, Ryan was at it again in Melbourne when, on 78 minutes, brilliantly saving a low header. Both games were a fair result.

With Saudi Arabia beating the UAE 3-0 overnight, it means the group is wide open. They lead by 2 points, with Australia next on 8, Japan on 7 and UAE on 6. Iraq is on 3 while Thailand has yet to score a point. Australia is yet to play Thailand so arguably has had the tougher run so far.

Personally, the group is nicely poised. While obviously I want Australia to qualify, there’s a big part of me that wants to see the campaign stay alive as long as possible. Many Arab nations are aggrieved that all Australia has done is taken a spot from them, and that’s a fair point. Our inclusion will be a failure if we are not tested, and even occasionally fail to qualify. If Japan won last night, I’d have found that acceptable. Probably the ideal scenario is Australia goes to Japan on 31 August needing a result. They get that, forcing Japan into the playoffs, this time through Central America, and qualify anyway.

There was a bit of publicity about the poor atmosphere at last night’s game at Docklands – even with over 48,000 in attendance. It was deathly quiet at times in the first half with the Australian cheer squad barely active – especially when compared to the visiting Japanese cheer squad. While apparently the Australians weren’t fully organised, the silence was apt for the occasion. Australia had conceded early and put on a limp, clueless and ineffective display in response. Also attacking towards the Japanese end didn’t help motivate the cheer squad.

The second half, when Australia were more active and got the goal, not only did the cheer squad react more, so did the entire crown. I prefer this form of dynamic cheering rather than the incessant and repetitive and often banal chants. If these concoctions are for entertainment purposes or to add to the atmosphere, what are you really saying about the sport itself – that it’s boring? Personally it doesn’t need it, and the quiet periods only enhanced the atmosphere, as they were a reflection of the game itself.

Results

06/10 Saudi Arabia 2 (Al-Jassim Goal 5′, Al-Shamrani 79′) – Australia 2 (Sainsbury 45′, Juric 71′)
11/09 Australia 1 (Jedinak 52′ PK) – Japan 1 (Haraguchi 5′)

Reports – Saudi Arabia
Reports – Japan

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Two great wins to open the final phase of qualifying

08 September 2016

Australia could not have hoped for a better start to the final phase of World Cup
qualifying for Russia 2018 with two great wins. The first a 2-0 win over Iraq in Perth last week and then a 1-0 win in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday night.

The win over the UAE was particularly satisfying, with the UAE in good form after a 2-1 win in Japan in its first match and temperatures in Abu Dhabi in the mid 30s. It was a showcase of the future of Asian football when teams like the UAE won’t sit back and pounce on Australian mistakes. They will know that with points on the line at home, they must try to assert some authority, and this is where Australia excelled. Despite the tenacity and proficiency of the UAE, Australia had the game in complete control, forcing the UAE to chase for long periods, and then breaking forward whenever possible.

From the UAE’s perspective, they never relented either, and held Australia at 0-0 until the 75th minute when a sublime cross from Brad Smith was met on the volley by Tim Cahill. It was one of those magical moments in football when high pressure situation was released with an act of individual brilliance. That it was Cahill on the end of it, who’d just arrive on the field, was poetic for it further enhanced his mercurial qualities of scoring when Australia really needs it. As the Socceroo Realm has stated previously, if he belonged to any other country, he’d be the most annoying player ever. That Japan in Melbourne is Australia’s next home match is also poetic in that they are an opposition to which Cahill has done the most damage. Five days prior, Australia is away to Saudi Arabia, who have also won their first two games.

Tim Cahill scores the winner against UAE in Asian World Cup qualifier 2016-09-06

It’s all good signs after two difficult preparation games against Greece in June. A 1-0 win was followed by a 2-1 loss as Australia’s style to constantly pressure Asian teams was fully exploited by Greece, especially in that second game, where Greece really dominated the key moments. It’s a tactic Asian teams traditionally use except, this time, Greece had the strike power to finish us off. They pounced on Australian forays forward to the point Australia looked clueless, particularly barely able to penetrate when going forward. Much credit therefore to coach Ange Postecoglou that a more mature and balance approached was brought, particularly against the UAE.

Elsewhere in the group, Japan rebounded to win in Thailand, while UAE won their first match and Iraq and Thailand remain winless. With six teams in the group this time, up from 5 for 2014, statistically it will be much harder to qualify. While we hope for at least a draw in Saudi Arabia, that match against Japan be pivotal, both in terms of gaining points and to further knock them down the table. A loss will suddenly neutralise that promising start. That may not be too bad anyway, as the point of being in Asia is for a tough and fair challenge. For the good of Asia, it needs to be that way too. Mark Bosnich on Fox Sports was suddenly talking about wrapping it up with 2-3 games to go. First, that’s disrespectful to our opponents and, second, that would be boring. Without the journey, you can’t savour the success.

Results

01/09 Australia 2 (Luongo 58′, Juric 64′) – Iraq 0
06/09 UAE 0 – Australia 1 (Cahill 75′)

Match report, highlights and interviews

Ambushed by Jordan… again

09 October 2015

08/10 Amman: Jordan 2 – Australia 0

After three relatively easy games in this first group phase of World Cup qualifying, Australia had its big test – away to Jordan – and failed… again. Like in 2012, Australia found itself 2-0 down in Amman. Unlike 2012, there’d be no last minute Australian goal to provide a small glimmer of hope to snatch a draw. The patterns of each match were eerily similar: Australia trying to control the game via possession, Australia wasting possession, Australia wasting chances, Jordan ambushing Australia, Jordan deserved winners. To be out-smarted once is bad enough; for it to happen twice shows an inability to learn. Whether that’s arrogance, in that Australia still has the mindset about Asia that “we should just beat these teams”, there still seems some residual notion of that.

The Asian Football Confederation has revamped its qualifying path, making a much streamlined affair, and also merging Asian Cup qualifying into the process. While the first phase is notionally more difficult with more teams in the groups and only the top team guaranteed to the second group phase, there’s actually more groups this time (8), most of the weaker nations are still involved (pre-qualifying only saw 6 eliminated), and the four best second placed teams also progress. Right now, Australia are the third best of the second placed teams. They also have the luxury of three of their final four matches at home, so have a great chance to reverse the result against Jordan (as they did last time with a 4-0 win in Melbourne), and accrue enough points that finishing second in the group would most likely be enough. The only away match is to Bangladesh, while Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Jordan are the home matches.

All the teams that advance from this first group phase automatically qualify for an expanded Asian Cup of 2019 while the rest play Asian Cup qualifiers as the second group phase of World Cup qualifying is on. It’s a thoroughly well thought and practical system. There were always too many qualifying matches, particularly for the Asian Cup, of which most bordered on training affairs for the bigger nations. Also, the smaller nations deserve their chance against the bigger ones in serious competition, while the bigger ones get to experience new countries and cultures like Australia has with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The big message from this game against Jordan is that Australia needs to change its approach when playing overseas against Middle Eastern teams. They are prepared to be patient and capitalise on mistakes, whether those mistakes be carelessness or from opposing pressure. All the talk of “controlling the game” is nonsense if there’s no reward for it. Arguably Jordan controlled the game much better despite conceding possession. Th axiom remains that it’s about usage of the ball, not the amount of time with it. Home teams like Jordan for this match are the ones under pressure to win. Therefore they should be respected in that manner. Allow them a bit of the ball. Let them take some risks coming forward. Let Australia do the ambushing.

One thing that won’t help is complaining about time wasting. Until FIFA clamps down on it with 10 minute expulsion of a player from the game for calling on a doctor, it’s a legitimate part of the game. Once Jordan took the lead just after half time, Australia allowed their frustration to affect their game. Tim Cahill was lucky not to spotted for knocking over a player off the ball late in the game. Cahill might also have already been aggrieved at being, again, a late substitution onto the field. It seems that coach Ange Postecoglou might be fading him from the first team selection, just in case he doesn’t last until the next World Cup.

Both of Jordan’s goals were apparently contentious. The first one came after Nathan Burns was dispossessed in midfield and a long ball sent through that saw Matthew Spiranovic concede a penalty. TV pundits mused whether Spiranovic should have been sent of as well. No. First, it was a 50/50 hustle for the ball that saw an inadvertent clip of Hamza Aldaradreh’s trailing leg. It’s not even a yellow card. Second, no goal scoring chance was denied. Jordan actually had a better chance thanks to it being a penalty, and it was duly converted by Hassan Mahmoud.

The second goal came after yet another 50/50 hustle, this time involving Jason Davidson after 84 minutes. He and his opponent both fell in the clash, which saw the ball then passed into space for Aldaradreh to pounce, and score. If anything, Davidson might have been called for obstruction after he seemed to trip himself first and then angled his body in front of his opponent, which contributed to the push he may then have received. While commentator Andy Harper was adamant it was a foul, those in the Fox Sports studio were not. Since Harper is also one that seems to want any hint of offside called, maybe it’s just best to disqualify his inane opinion on such matters. Both goals were totally fair. Football has a mystique of infairness onto which it prides itself, so the fair thing is to accept being beaten fairly, and by a better team, and learn for next time.

Previous Results

08/09 Dushanbe: Tajikistan 0 – Australia 3
Great perseverance by Australia. It took until 57 minutes to score, before another on 73 and then one more in injury time. Biggest fear seemed whether the stadium’s lighting would be strong enough.

03/09 Perth: Australia 5 – Bangladesh 0
After two goals in the first 8 minutes, this match started reminiscent of the first 10 minutes of American Samoa v Australia. American Samoa kept it 0-0 for 10 minutes before losing 31-0. Unlike American Samoa that could not hold on, Bangladesh conceded two more by 29 minutes and then only one more for the remainder of the game.

16/06 Bishket: Kyrgyzstan 1 – Australia 2
Unlucky to concede after two minutes from a bobbled free kick. Despite upsetting the Socceroos with their fast and direct style, Kyrgyzstan restricted mostly to spraying mid and long range shots. Class told in end.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Osieck slams ever increasingly irrational critics

10 October 2013

Holger hits back

At the press conference to announce the squad to play France and Canada over the upcoming days, Australia’s coach rebuts innuendo that he’s failing as national coach because the Socceroos don’t play nice enough, that it was too much of a grind to qualify for the World Cup, and they couldn’t compete with Brazil the “friendly” international match last month.

With France to be played Saturday morning AET, comes more innuendo that if there’s no “result” in that game, then Osieck could be heading for the door. He took the moment to slam his critics with a reality check about his appointment and mandate, answer the issue of his choice of player personnel, examine the result in Brazil, and explain the seemingly strange decision of not using Tom Rogic from the start of the game…

”It is impossible for me to respond to that question (if he’ll be sacked after the French game). I have a contract and I have fulfilled my mandate so far and now we are in the process of preparing for the finals, but if you want to put this to me I am the wrong person to talk to. I am not informed of what has been said or written about me. So far there has been no need to talk (with Football Federation Australia) about my situation. What’s the rationale behind it? We are in the early stages of preparation for Brazil. We are there while other major football nations are still struggling to qualify and some won’t even get there. To question me then is a little bit out of order. As an organisation, and the technical department is part of the organisation, we are all in the same boat and we should row in the same direction. It would be very unwise not to do so and I do not have a feeling of anything different. I know what I am doing.

”If you look at recent history when younger players were given the opportunity they found it hard to adapt to higher standards. In June during our qualifying campaign our more experienced players did well and got us through to the World Cup. I am still looking to give opportunities to other players to step up and get into the team.

“One thing we have to consider is our status when we went to Brazil. I would like to emphasise that this is an explanation not an excuse. The players from the A-League and Middle East I called in were still in pre-season and Tim Cahill and Luke Wilkshire had to pull out due to injury. When you cannot compete physically with your opponent then your whole game falls apart. I am confident that when we are at full strength and our boys are in full playing rhythm then the team’s overall performance will definitely improve. It was a bad defeat, the worst in my career, but we will not break down and will carry on and follow our plan and direction. I expect a strong reaction from the boys in Paris.

”Tom Rogic is almost an eternal topic. I know how good he is but he is not playing. He is not in Celtic’s first team and he occasionally gets on. I had him in Brazil and he came with a groin injury so he was not fit. He spent more time on the medical bench than on the training pitch. In order to give him some psychological boost I gave him a few minutes to make him feel that he is part of the group. But right now he is not fully fit so I don’t think he will start in Paris. We have to acknowledge that and it is a matter of making some diligent research and look into the position of a player. I mean, what is he doing in his home environment? Why is he not playing? Is he not as good as we expect him to be? That is the problem but I can assure you that I am on top of it because I have all he necessary information. I wish he was fit and he could play as a starter but at the moment circumstances do not permit this.”

Holger’s comments say it all. This jihad we’re on to get him sacked makes no sense.

The mandate was to qualify for the World Cup; it wasn’t to excel away to Brazil in an inconvenient and dopey farclie. Brazil recently beat Spain and France 3-0 so we really have a bloated regard for ourselves that should do better than.

He has tried many young players. Other than Robbie Kruse and Tom Oar, they haven’t stepped up. The key example is that game against Oman, escaping with a 2-2 draw after key experienced players missing. After that, they’re back, and we raved about the “performance” against Japan and ecstatic that we won last two must-win games to qualify. The recent EAFF Finals was a massive experiment, and only Mitch Duke elevated himself.

For the key personnel issue vs Brazil, Rogic, we learn he had a groin strain and he’s not even playing for his club much. It would have been derelict of Holger’s duty to start him. Then we’d be complaining about giving the kid a suicide mission.

We’re also obsessed with “performance”. This isn’t figure skating. You don’t get judged on technical merit and artistic style. The definition of “result” is results. Facts are Socceroos are at an ebb and there’s little much on the immediate horizon. We’re not a club team that can go buy and recruit players. It’s a representative team. The reservoir exists only as the rain falls. We’re also not a world power despite some of our overblown egos wanting to believe. If we want results, then expect to see it ugly. I’d rather be Greece Euro 2004 than playing cute football losing 2-0 all the time just to appease a few smug purists watching too much Barcelona.

Critics become more irrational

The squad for France and Canada does not include incumbent goal keeper Mark Schwarzer. Mitch Langerak is expected to make his debut. So here is another example of Osieck trying a new player. As he should, since Schwarzer moved to Chelsea and is spending much of the time on the bench. Osieck wants players playing regularly. He showed that with Rogic and now with Schwarzer. It doesn’t matter the level of your potential talent or your experience. You must be playing regularly with your club and in form.

In the face of this, Philip Micallef, the normally more pragmatic side of theworldgame website team, stepped up from the likes of Les Murray and the ever whiny Craig Foster with an article “D-Day in Paris will force FFA’s hand”. It’s quite amazing that earlier in the week that SBS “soc jocks”, via twitter, slammed Melbourne’s Herald Sun for “dampening” the A-League season merely by reporting an increase presence by police and clubs to stamp out troublemakers at Saturday’s Melbourne Derby. Here SBA are, on their flagship website, dampening the Socceroos World Cup preparations. Can’t we just watch the match in Paris without the ogre of the coach sacked?

At heart, Micallef called for Osieck to be sacked if it all goes wrong against France, using the precedence of Guus Hiddink suddenly replacing Frank Farina as coach just prior to the Uruguay game of 2005. Of course, situation is much difference as Farina had already failed in one qualifying campaign so Hiddinck was recruited to complete the job (as Osieck already has done). Second, the key criticism of a team too old would not be addressed by Hiddinck anyway. He would persist with the tried and true experienced players, not throw around youth. No serious international coach would consider such a proposal.

The real doozy from Micallef’s article was the call that, “What FFA could have done is look for a coach who was prepared to forgo qualification and personal ambition and concentrate on building a team for the future”.  Are we serious? So three years ago, FFA says forget the next World Cup, play younger players so we’re better for 2018? No serious coach would accept this. Holger already admitted that he wouldn’t in the press conference above. The FFA would be laughed into the loony bin at such a proposal. Fans would not accept it either if they applied one second of rational thought.

The sheer arrogance of the proposal defies belief. If we can’t perform well at the World Cup we don’t even want to attend? What sort of message is this. We’ll just forsake playing on the grandest stage in sport because we fear losing a few games? How weak, pathetic and insecure are we. This arrogance is something I never thought we’d see in our sport. It’s been the domain of yobbo cricketers and conceited swimmers. Now we’re even worse. We’re not the humble, proud sport anymore. We’re the arrogant, spoiled brats. If ever the day comes FFA does act so disgracefully and shunts World Cup qualifying for youth experimentation in the guise of speculative long-term, non-guaranteed and mystical success, well may we say God Save Australia, because nothing will save our reputation.

Sources:
http://theworldgame.sbs.com.au/socceroos/news/1168293/Socceroos-boss-Osieck-hits-back-at-his-critics

http://theworldgame.sbs.com.au/philip-micallef/blog/1169435/D-day-in-Paris-will-force-FFA’s-hand

Kennedy’s silver goal a golden moment – Australia off to Brazil

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.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Jordan gone, Iraq gone – A one-two punch and suddenly it’s easy

Melbourne: Australia 4 – Jordan 0

In just over one week Australian football fans have gone from despair about qualifying to pre-emptive celebration. The first punch was knocking out Jordan in this most defining of games – at Melbourne’s Docklands last night. It was the most pivotal and emotionally intense game probably since the Iran Game in 1997, given the high hopes and feverish anticipation of success that both games shared. The second punch came later in the night when Japan knocked out Iraq 1-0 in Doha.

Played, Points & GD
Jap 8, 17, +11
Aus 7, 10, 4
Oma 7, 9, -2
Jor 7, 7, -10
Irq 7, 5, -3

Schedule
18/06 Aus v Iraq; Jor v Oma

Next week’s equation is now simple: Australia must beat Iraq in Sydney only if Oman wins in Jordan. Any lesser result by Oman, Australia has already qualified for Brazil. Of course, with Australia playing several hours prior to Oman’s game, Australia has no choice than to seek a win. It’s just that there’s that comforting factor that a loss or draw means a late night vigil of the other game, cheering for Jordan to knock out Oman. With Jordan needing to win to make the third-placed playoff – and given their strong home form already with wins over Australia and Japan – Oman’s hopes seem low. Conversely, with Iraq knocked out from even a playoff spot and potentially coming to Australia as a totally deflated opponent, Australia’s hopes could not be higher coming into any live game.

The key to next week’s game will be an early goal. Arab teams seem to be weak mentally against non-Arab teams, easily capitulating if the game doesn’t go their way, just as Jordan fell apart last night. Hoping for a draw, they left the half time break at 1-0 and putting Australia under extreme pressure. To say there was a deja vu of that Iran Game is not an understatement. The entire stadium grew restless, frustrated at the reverse in dominance and also of so many missed chances had left the game finely balanced at 1-0. Unlike Terry Venables, coach in 1997, Holger Osieck did react to the parlous state of play, bringing on an actual striker, Archie Thompson. Within 30 seconds, he picked up the ball, charged the defence, passed off, dragged two defenders towards his run, and next thing you know the ball is in the net. Robbie Kruse was able to find Tim Cahill in plenty of space for a headed goal. From there, Kruse scored himself after a neat turn, while Lucas Neill scored his first Socceroos goal after heading from a corner scramble. It was his 91st game. All that Jordan could manage was substituting their goalkeeper late in the game, fearing another yellow card against him, as he constantly berated the referee in frustration. To say he was throwing in the towel, he literally did as he exited the field straight to the dressing room.

This was the first time this campaign that Osieck named the same team for successive matches. While it seems unwise to deviate for Iraq, it’s total negligence not to note the immediate transformation in lethality and energy when Thompson arrived. Cahill is not a striker and doesn’t behave like one. Too often he was in his own half retrieving balls. Again, often on breaks, no one was forward, meaning attacks broke down. In contrast, with an actual striker menacing the last line and pushing the defence back, suddenly there was all this space for attacking midfielders to exploit. The result was astounding. It’s not the first time either. Australia recovered late to beat Iraq earlier in the campaign. Finally: Brett Holman. The seduction is over. Can’t pass, runs erratically, shoots wildly and impetuous with decisions. While some of it can be forgiven for his energy and rare cracking goal and whatever else the coaches see, it was his inability to hit simple, short passes that really frustrated. In the interim between qualifiers and the World Cup, someone like Tomas Rogic – who replaced Holman during the game – must be tried. Better still, drop Cahill back to his customary and more dangerous role as lurking attacking midfielder and play a striker up front.

How times have changed with female sports journalists and specifically Fox Sports’ Melanie McLaughlin. Tim Cahill delivered his own knock-out by kissing her after the post-match interview – somewhat surprising her. This was the same player incredibly rude and disrespectful to her post-match Japan, MCG, 2009. It was some petulant protest about other sections of the media reporting alleged unruly behaviour at a Sydney bar by Cahill – something nothing to do with Fox Sports. It only hurt Cahill and the team’s image as fans deserved to hear answers to the excellent questions about the match. McLaughlin deserved an apology back then. Whether she received one, that determines the interpretation of the kiss. The original incident was covered in the page for South Africa 2010 qualifying on the website.

* Apologies for the abridged and late update. A broken collarbone from a bike crash meant another hospital visit and typing limited to just the left hand.

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Osieck backs veterans against Japan as a draw suits fine

The shaky defence of recent games will be fortified with Lucas Neill and Sasa Ognenovski returning as central pairing in a game where a draw in Saitama will see Australia climb back into second on the table. Jordan, currently in second, has the bye, while the winner of Oman v Iraq would leap-frog Australia and dump Jordan to fourth. The group is that close. Osieck’s decision makes sense as Australia then has two home games in which to simply maintain their position.

“Why Neill” as so many ask on the football forums? Plenty of chances have been given to the youngsters and they haven’t stepped up. Look against Oman where the defence was easily penetrated. Neill is still the best defender. He’s being made the scapegoat for the team’s average performances simply because of his age. As for Og, it wasn’t so long ago fans were crying for him to start for the national team. No defenders have surpassed him; he’s done little wrong either. Fans are so fickle. Remember, it’s about qualifying, not any individual game, and clearly Osieck’s thinking a draw suits fine.

More interest will be forward. Given that Japan is almost an expendable game, it would not surprise if a few surprises are sprung and maybe snag a result in Japan. Josh Kennedy’s long-awaited return will certainly offer something different. Most likely any move will come later in the game after a substitution. While early in the game would really catch the Japanese off guard, it would then leave the team open to an onslaught. If it fails, no real harm done. Holger can return to the more conservative approach for the final games and would also have a mandate to do so given the failure in Japan.

Note that this match really is almost expendable. If Australia wins their two final games – both at home – it’s almost certainly enough. Remember that in a playoff it’s so well desired to play the the home match last? Well, what’s better than one home game last? Two! This time, away-goals don’t count as double, unlike the Iran Game.

* Apologies for the abridged update. A broken collarbone from a bike crash with typing limited to one bruised left hand.

More at: socceroorealm.com