Direct Qualification – What Went Wrong?

12 September 2017

Credit where it’s due. Australia tried its absolute hardest to win by enough goals against Thailand to increase its chances to directly qualify for the World Cup in 2018. Forty five shots on goal, 26 of them from inside the penalty box, 11 shots were blocked, 3 hit the post, 16 corners and 76% possession says it all. Goals in football generally average to 1 for every seven shots, so at 45 shots, that’s at least 6 goals. Even from the 26 shots within the box, that’s almost 4 goals. Instead it was two, while Thailand managed to score 1 from their handful of decent shots, with it diverting in from the crossbar. They also had an obvious penalty denied late in the first half when scores were 0-0. It was one of those nights.

Final Table of Group B Asian World Cup Qualifying for Russia 2018

Final Table of Group B Asian World Cup Qualifying for Russia 2018

Credit also for the resilience of the Socceroos. Despite the 0-0 score at half time, Australia kept battling away. When the unthinkable happened that Thailand equalised on 82 minutes, Australia responded withing four minutes to regain the lead. The game was so reminiscent of the home leg against Canada in 1993 where Australia peppered the goals, finally broke through late in the first half, inexplicably conceded early in the second half, and salvaged a goal late to bring the tie level. Except then, Australia went on to win the penalty shootout to reach the final playoff round against Argentina. This time there still might be penalties to decide it all – after the third placed playoff against Syria and then either USA, Honduras or Panama in CONCACAF.

It was an eerie and strange feeling leaving the stadium and going home last Tuesday night. Certainly there was relief that the Socceroos snagged the win to give them some hope to qualify directly, and there was uncertainty about the future. First it was whether Saudi Arabia at home could defeat Japan in a few hours time to send Australia to the playoffs, and then the nature of the playoffs as well. As it proved, Saudi Arabia beat Japan 1-0 in a game that had saw both teams create many chances. It could have gone either way. Again, it was one of those nights. In truth, the Saudis deserved to win. Good on them too!

Since Australia’s entry into Asia, all we’ve done is taken a spot from the existing teams. It wasn’t meant to be like this, and the Middle Eastern teams have especially felt aggrieved. There were meant to be reciprocal benefits moving to Asia, not for Australia to gain a permanent and easy World Cup spot. Part of the benefit of absorbing a powerful Australia from Oceania was the expectation Asia and Oceania would be permanently linked for the playoff spot. That only lasted one cycle when Bahrain lost to New Zealand as FIFA betrayed both regions, sending Asia and Oceania into a random draw with South America and CONCACAF. For Asia to work, there’s to be mutual benefit of improving the Socceroos, other Asian teams and Asia as a whole. That also means occasionally not qualifying for the World Cup. I’ve said in the past that Australia should accept missing one in three World Cups. After two successful attempts, maybe it’s our time to miss out. Or, at least, do something no Asian team has been able to do since Australia joined Asia – qualify through the playoffs.

Invariably, the obvious question to ask following the failure to qualify directly is: What went wrong? Not that much actually. Australia won 5, drew 4 and lost one match. They had the least losses of all teams, with their only loss away to Japan. No shame in that. They accumulated 19 points, which is 4 more points than the other group’s second placed team (Korea), and only missed qualifying on goal difference. A direct comparison to the results of Japan and Saudi Arabia away to Thailand (2-0 and 3-0, respectively) would be to blame the corresponding match. Thailand were meant to be the whipping boys, and here, playing in tribute for the recent death of their king, kept Australia to 2-2. They actually should have won, running Australia ragged and missing a late chance. The crucial match for Australia was in Saudi Arabia, where Australia conceded on 79 minutes to leave with a 2-2 draw. Instead of gaining three points on the Saudis, they gained nothing. In a game that could have gone either way, they led Iraq too – until the 76th minute – to leave neutral Tehran with a draw. As for this extraordinary home match against Thailand, note that Japan and Saudi Arabia won their corresponding fixtures 4-0 and 1-0. Thailand were a reasonably tough defensive unit to crack.

Coach Ange Postecoglou naturally is facing some pressure. The switch from 4 at the back to 3 at the back after the halfway mark was criticised, most specifically by Mark Bosnich, as an unnecessary experiment. Results suggest it didn’t matter too much, with Australia scoring 10 of their 19 points in the second half of qualifying, albeit with an extra home match. More critical is some of the stubbornness – particularly some of Ange’s instructions and being lost in his greater vision at the expense of the direct mission. Most glaring at the venue was seeing the goal-keeper always – and I mean always – playing the ball out along the ground. While I can appreciate that facilitates the general possession game Postecoglou wants to aspire, it’s occasionally at the detriment of the team’s chances to quickly get forward. Often players would be clear in space after sprinting up-field ready for a long kick-out. No, it was always play it to a defender, which also made it so predictable for Thailand, who could easily press and try win possession. They nearly capitalised once, as did Japan. Often this sort of stubbornness shows a coach losing confidence or control, and trying to re-stamp authority.

Then there’s Ange’s “change the landscape” vision for football in Australia. Interestingly, previous coaches have been lambasted for being too short-sighted with their objectives. You can’t win, even if you do, as both Pim Verbeek and Holger Osieck qualified Australia directly. National teams are representative teams and, particularly for countries like Australia, the talent pool is limited. This isn’t a club where you can buy or recruit players to suit your coaching ethos and then try imprint a style over months of training and during the season, or even over multiple seasons. International teams gather a few times a year, have limited training opportunities, often have specific short term aims, so the goal is to extract the best out of those players available and the team in general. Often you might need to adjust tactics and formations to suit the players you have. No point trying to turn players into something they are not, as after the match they go back to their clubs and their natural style. When you’re quitting the national team after this campaign as Ange has already confirmed, then how can you change the landscape anyway? The next coach – if he’s a reputable, high-calibre coach of self worth and belief – will do something according to his ethos. He won’t be bending to the previous coach’s practice.

The harsh truth with this cycle is not the coach, not the method, not even many of those 45 shots against Thailand that narrowly did not score. It’s that the players are not good enough at international level. Obviously the calibre isn’t there when you compare them to names like Viduka, Kewell, Emerton, Neill and Moore of the 2006 World Cup team, it’s actually more mental than physical – unable to cope with higher pressure, both mentally and time on the ball in the cauldron of international football. Even Mark Viduka lamented it at times. Players simply don’t get that intensity at club level so often have difficulty adjusting. Even the biggest names have trouble adjusting, like Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski.

The one dynamic Australia still has is Ange Postecoglou. “In Ange we trust” – remember that when he was first hired? It still applies. We must keep trusting. He’s a proud Australian, and proud of his team. The month waiting until the first playoff series will be a time of great reflection, and a switch to the direct mission objective of winning the both playoff series. He has no choice. You can’t change the landscape if the landscapers are out of a job.

Results

2017-08-31 Saitama: Japan 2 (Takuma 41′, Yosuke 82′) – Australia 0
2017-09-05 Melbourne: Australia 2 (Juric 69′, Leckie 86′) – Thailand 1 (A-Nan 82′)

Group A Qualifiers

Iran (22 points), Korea (15 points)

Match Report

More at the AFC

Ange Postecoglou’s post-match comments:

“My position is I’m coach of the national team … I’ll see it through. The Australian football industry chewed me up and spat me out 10 years ago so this is nothing new.

“It doesn’t change my conviction of what I think is right for our game and our country and I’ll see it through.

“I love watching that team play, my team play, our team play.

“People can have their judgments of me … I won’t be pushed into the shadows of Australian football history like others.

“The style, the approach is what works for us and what will work for us.”

 

“It’s been unbelievable, it’s been magnificent and I have been sitting here frustrated for the last two years listening to some of the garbage being thrown around at these players.

“It’s tough qualifying for a World Cup, it’s even tougher when it’s your first one for a lot of these guys. We have played 10 games, lost only one, they have done everything I have asked of them. I am the one putting them out there trying to win games of football.

“It’s heartbreaking for the players. They were brilliant tonight. They had 40 plus shots and chances just didn’t go in. If we had got one a bit earlier it may have opened them up a bit.

“As the game wore on anxiety crept in, we had to take a couple more risks. They could have become deflated at each other, but they showed character and resilience to stay in the game.

“Thailand were resilient, defended desperately but OK, 45 shots, three posts, cleared off the line, if there was a more one-sided contest I don’t think I have seen it. Usually when the evidence is overwhelming you get the rewards.”

“All you need is 10 per cent to go in and you are talking about a different game.”

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The Thailand Game – Preview

04 September 2017

This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Iran Game – the final World Cup qualifying match of the campaign in 1997 in which Australia conceded two second half goals to see World Cup qualification ripped from their hearts. In 2017, Australia is on a similar precipice with The Thailand Game, except there is at least a second chance via the playoffs if it all goes awry. At stake is direct qualification, and nothing short of a big win will ease concerns. Even with that, focus will turn to the match between Saudi Arabia and Japan, where the Saudis could still edge out Australia with a good win over a team that is already qualified for Russia 2018. The question is: which team will grasp the chance?

Russia 2018 - Asian World Cup Qualifying - Group B heading into the final round of matches

Group B of Asian World Cup Qualifying heading into the final round of matches

Both Australia and Saudi Arabia have let valuable points slip through the campaign, and that was the case with the last round of matches with Saudi Arabia losing 2-1 in the UAE and Australia losing 2-0 in Japan. That loss ended Australia’s unbeaten run in the campaign, albeit with 4 of the eight matches ending in a draw. The Saudis would feel more aggrieved, as they led 1-0, whereas Japan are tough at home for any team, and it’s a fixture Australia have never won. Despite hopes the Socceroos could obtain a result, it never looked likely with the team comprehensively out-played from the start. Of the handful of attempts on goal, all were speculative, and the team were exposed for its lack of ideas and attacking impetus – not to mention non-defending for Japan’s first goal. Players and coach interviewed afterwards lamented this seemingly unusual, lacklustre performance. Except, it wasn’t unusual. It’s been a problem for many years now, with this website often critical of excessive dallying on the ball and passing sideways, often into congestion, rather forward and into space.

Despite some of the complex scenarios and narrative drawn since Australia’s loss last week, the scenario is quite simple, with Australia still very much favoured to finish second in Group B. All Australia must do is get a better result vs Thailand than Saudi Arabia does vs Japan. If the Saudis lose heavily, then Australia can lose by two fewer goals. If the Saudis lose narrowly, then Australia needs a draw. If the Saudis draw, then any win is good enough for Australia. If the Saudis win, then Australia’s win must be bigger by two goals to overcome the 2 goal deficit in goal difference.

Examples: if it’s KSA-JPN 1-0, 2-1 or 3-2 for a 1 goal win, then AUS-THA must be a 3 goal win like 3-0, 4-1 or 5-2; if it’s KSA-JPN 4-1 for a 3 goal win, then AUS-THA must be 5-0, 6-1 or 7-2 for a 5 goal win.

It’s hard enough to imagine Saudi Arabia beating Japan at all, much less to win big, so realistically their largest win would be by 3 goals. Much of this will depend on the sort of team and mindset the Japanese bring to Saudi Arabia. While that fierce Japanese pride suggests they won’t roll over, being already qualified is the intangible. It could easily sap motivation, or they could play with great abandon. Conversely, Saudi Arabia at home will be either inspired by the local crowd or capitulate under the pressure.

The conundrum with The Thailand Game is that Saudi Arabia’s match is not played until several hours after Australia’s, so these “if” scenarios only apply to the Saudis. They have the luxury of knowing their minimum requirements while Australia must play as though it’s a worst case scenario and try to win 5 or 6 nil to protect itself from the any likely Saudi victory. Without such a win, it will be an eerie feeling after The Thailand Game. While it won’t be the devastation following The Iran Game, the mix of anxiety and hope after The Thailand Game will leave us bemused and curious about how we found ourselves in this position in the first place.

Australia vs Iraq & UAE – Back on Course

2 April 2017

Credit where it’s due. Australia procured four precious points, as was the minimum requirement, away to Iraq and at home the United Arab Emirates this week. While the 1-1 draw in neutral Tehran against Iraq could have gone either way, the Socceroos ground UAE into submission for the win 2-0 in Sydney. It was a good response after the stunningly exciting 2-2 draw in Thailand to end 2016, where the Thais ran Australia ragged, playing inspired football in tribute to the recent death of their king, and arguably they should have won. Curiously, Australia remains the only unbeaten in the group, yet still sits in third.

The results have provided some sort of relief to a side struggling for wins, not to mention adding much more excitement to the qualifying process itself. For an ambitious team and coach, it’s been a timely boost, especially after switching to a 3-4-3 system. Remember, coach Ange Postecoglou doesn’t only want to qualify for Russia 2018, he wants to perform well there. While the 3-4-3 worked well against the UAE, often it operated as 1-2-4-3 formation. Calling it 3-4-3 is probably more a statement on the team’s psychology – to reinvigorate and inspire a more attacking and confident mentality, rather that coast as usual like the previous two coaches, Holger Osieck and Pim Verbeek, would do.

The only quibble with the results is all three goals came from corners. Several of the few well worked opportunities Australia managed to create were let down by poor final balls and finishing. Aaron Mooy missed the easiest against Iraq, while the Iraqis should have received a penalty for an Australian handball. They scored anyway a few minutes later to cancel the damage from the referee’s error. Then it was a matter of holding the Iraqis out with some desperate defense and goal-keeping.

It shows how pivotal these moments become where one moment you could be 2-0 up and it’s a cruise to victory and then suddenly it’s all equal and you’re trying to protect that crucial one point. That extends to the group process itself. After two wins from the first two games, commentators like Mark Bosnich were talking about wrapping it up quickly. Four draws later finds itself desperate for the win to simply stay in touch. Australia in third place has 13 points, behind Saudi Arabia and Japan on 16. In fact, with Saudi Arabia and Japan both winning their matches, Australia only managed to hold their position after these two games.

The real crucial game is the one against Saudi Arabia in June. A win by two goals there and Australia jumps to second. A one goal win keeps them third. Their final game is home to Thailand, so they would expect to bank 3 points there to go to 19 points. The other game is away to Japan, so no a guarantee of any points. The good news is after Australia, the Saudis are away to the UAE and home to Japan. If Australia draws with the Saudis, they will need 4 points from their final two matches and hope the Saudis lose both. A loss means Australia would need two wins and the Saudis two losses. So that game in June against Saudi Arabia is the closest thing to a high pressure, crucial World Cup qualifier we’ve had since the intercontinental playoffs during the Oceania era.

Results

2016-11-15 Thailand 2 (Dangda 20′, 57′ PK) – Australia 2 (Jedinak 9′ PK, 65′ PK)
2017-03-23 Iraq 1 (Ahmed Yaseen 76′) – Australia 1 (Leckie 39′)
2017-03-28 Australia 2 (Irvine 7′, Leckie 78′) – UAE 0

Match Report – Thailand
Match Report – Iraq
Match Report – UAE

The Scenario

Current Points and Goal Difference

JPN 16 9+
KSA 16 8+
AUS 13 5+

13 Jun 2017: AUS beat KSA 2-0, IRQ lose to JPN 0-2

JPN 19 11+
AUS 16 7+
KSA 16 6+

31 Aug 2017: JPN beat AUS 1-0; UAE draw with KSA

JPN 20 12+
KSA 17 6+
AUS 16 6+

05 Sep 2017: AUS beat THA 3-0; KSA lose to JPN 0-1

JPN 23 13+
AUS 19 9+
KSA 17 5+

Two losses and a draw are assigned to KSA for their final 3 games. Given their form, it’s quite possible they win somewhere. If it’s at the UAE, that bumps them to 19 points with goal difference probably keeping them third. If they win or draw at home to Japan, then they overtake Australia. Note, Japan will most likely be qualified by the final so could send an experimental team to Saudi Arabia.

If Australia finishes third, all is not lost. The beauty of being in a large confederation like Asia is you do get second chances, and sometimes even a third chance. This would involve a playoff with the third team from Group A (likely Uzbekistan) and then a playoff with a CONCACAF team. Wouldn’t that be exciting!

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

Could have won, should have won, would have won – that’s football

18 January 2015

17/01 Brisbane Stadium: Australia 0 – Korea Republic 1

Australia lost 1-0 to Korea last night in match that was provided a more resilient, stronger and lethal opponent than that of Kuwait and Oman in the first two games. Australia need this test to validate the development seen in those first two games, and to help prepare it for even tougher tasks ahead. It proved exactly a test, being a cagey game until Korea scored just after 30 minutes, then opening up in the second half in a fascinating duel between two teams not wanting to concede an inch. As Australia dominated possession, passing and shots on goal, Korea held firm and created a few chances of their own on the rebound. You could argue Korea’s goalie was brilliant, or maybe Australia unlucky to convert chances. That’s football.

James Troisi created a glorious chance for himself in the first half, shooting just wide after wrong-footing the goalie. Robbie Kruse created similarly in the second half, dribbling past a defender, only for his shot to be saved. At the other end, Mat Ryan saved point blank shot from a one-on-one break that would have seen Korea 2-0 up. It was fabulous entertainment, with the players and coach echoing the belief that the team played well enough to win, are good enough to win the tournament, and will now look forward to the quarter final against China on Thursday.

Australia started the match with a reshaped forward line, with Nathan Burns, Tomi Juric and Troisi leading the line. Juric also had at least two good chances to score himself, with one a poor first touch that saw the ball escape him, and the other from close range that went over the bar. Of those three players, he’s probably the one to just lack that bit extra to excel at international level. Burns and Troisi did well. Late in the game Tim Cahill, Kruse and Matthew Leckie were brought on to try rescue the game, remembering that a draw was enough to win the group. While their presence was notable, Korea largely contained them.

In fact, Korea really did their homework against the Socceroos, often goading them with little shoves and plenty of time wasting, hoping Australia would retaliate excessively. It worked, frustrating the Australians, and possibly contributing to Matthew Spiranovic’s rough challenge late that saw him get a second yellow card for the tournament and therefore miss the next game. Aziz Behich was almost lured into rough conduct, with the potential scuffle broken up by the referee, while you could speculate Australia lost concentration on the Korean goal. Three players were lured to the ball carrier after a throw in, creating the space for the short through-ball and low cross that was guided into the net.

Ultimately the loss meant nothing, other than pride. If you had to lose a game, this is the one, especially after playing so well and showing the team is firmly on the right track. It might even knock down any of the excessive bravado that might have been building. Despite nonsense about the perils of not winning the group, there is barely anything between the quarter final options of Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and China, so there’s also no material consequence of the loss. Before the tournament, Uzbekistan looked the strongest team; now they may not even qualify for the next phase. We now know China is our opponent, and other than sealing their group win after just two games, they, along with Saudi Arabia, have been rubbish the past few years. Playing China also means Australia stay in Brisbane, even if the negative there is substandard pitch.

The real interest because of this loss, and if Australia beats China, is Australia likely faces Japan in the semi final and Iran in the final. Amazingly, Japan is still not assured of even qualifying for the knockout phase, needing no worse than a 1 goal loss against Jordan to guarantee it. Otherwise, with Iraq likely to wipe aside the hapless Palestine, that would leave all three teams in Group D on 6 points. With head-to-head unable to split the three, it will go to goal difference. A two goal loss to Jordan and if Iraq beats Palestine by four (maybe even 3 is enough), it’s goodbye Japan. Iran plays Group C leaders the UAE on Monday night so need a win to top the group. Otherwise, it’s Australia in the semi finals, not the final. For those still traumatised by the Iran Game of 1997, the only therapy is to plan Iran again. It will happen one day. It needs to be a big one-off game on home soil. The final of the Asian Cup is the perfect time. It is our destiny.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Oman demoralised, now for the real test: Korean Republic

15 January 2015

13/01 Stadium Australia, Sydney: Oman 0 – Australia 4

As much as Australia dominated Tuesday night’s match against Oman to win 4-0, Oman hardly provided a stern test. While they looked dangerous early with a few counter attacks, the two quick Australian goals just before 30 minutes demoralised them, and they then went into damage control until the half time break. This was probably the plan from the start, that if going behind early, rather than compound the problem, the team would make adjustments at half time. Unfortunately, for Oman, the problem was compounded, conceding right on half time.

As much as Oman tried to make inroads in the second half, Australia were content on reversing the counter-attacking role, playing the waiting game against Oman and hitting them on the break. Despite numerous chances created, only one was converted – a lovely cross on the outside of the boot by Matthew Leckie for Tomi Juric to smash home. Most pleasing about the result was that four different players scored the goals, none of whom were Tim Cahill, and none of whom scored the four goals against Kuwait. Australia also finally kept a clean sheet, restricting Oman to barely a handful of chances.

The second goal of the night was the best Australian goal of the tournament so far. After receiving from Kruse, Massimo Luongo lovely first touch allowed him to lob the ball over for Kruse to continue his run through. He controlled nicely off the thigh then slammed the ball home on 30 minutes. Scoring was opened 3 minutes prior when Matt McKay scored at close range from a corner after a header towards goal from Trent Sainsbury, while the goal just before half time was a penalty converted by Mark Milligan after his goal in open play was ridiculously denied. The referee didn’t play advantage after Cahill was dragged down so it was fitting that Milligan was allowed to right the wrong.

Australia is through to the quarter finals regardless and only needs a draw to top the group. Coach Ange Postecoglou responded beautifully to a question whether he’d take it easy and just settle for a draw. “What do you think?”, was his riposte. We’re Australian, we go for the win. All good as long as you remain mindful of respecting the opposition, of which Ange seems sure to do. It’s already been the hallmark of his coaching and you see the response in the team that the arrogance and visible indignation seen in the team from, especially, the 2007 Asian Cup, long gone. Of course, it’s a different group of players now, a group beginning from a humble base, and now on a trajectory up.

Australia’s quarter final opponent is the runner-up from Group B. China has won the group already while Uzbekistan must beat Saudi Arabia to qualify in second. After that, it gets very interesting, with Iran (by winning its group) the likely semi final and Japan the final. If Iran finish second in their group, the clash with Australia would be in the final. If Australia finishes second in their group and Iran win theirs, it’s China in the quarter final, Japan in the semi final and Iran the final. In some ways, the latter scenario is the more enticing one. First, China might provide the sterner test than the Saudis or Uzbekistan, plus the Chinese fans will make for an amazing atmosphere. Second, it’s been 18 years since “The Iran Game” of 1997, so it would be nice for some form of redemption in a big one-off game. I guess if Australia loses to Korea, let’s be mischievous and revert to talking up the “performance”, rather than the “result”.

Full website: socceroorealm.com

Belgium and Saudi Arabia – the friendly farce continues

9 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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