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

Asia wins as Australia win the Asian Cup of 2015

01 February 2015

Match Report, Asia’s Reaction, FIFA’s Reaction and Asia’s Future

31/01 Sydney: Korea Republic 1 – Australia 2 (1-1 FT)

The Asian Cup of 2015 needed the gripping final that it got to cement itself as the greatest moment in Australian football. It’s been a marvellous tournament, with thrilling football, big crowds and seamless organisation. The fact that the entire football community could so readily engage in the competition, especially to see games live, the tournament was so friendly, and that all the teams were our fellow Asian friends, made it more enjoyable, as a whole, than recent World Cups. Winning the championship surpasses Australia’s previous best triumph on home soil of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. That was just a one-off game, whereas the Asian Cup was a proper tournament that required sustained high achievement over six games.

The final itself, just like the group game against Korea, could have gone either way. The Koreans had the three best chances of the first half, including an open header from a free kick, while Australia could only muster one decent shot on goal, that from Tim Cahill on a tight angle. Distinct from all previous opponents, Korea did not allow Australia to play its dominant possession game, pressuring high up the pitch, almost to the point Australia’s style collapsed. Australia’s opening goal, just before half time, ironically came from a deep pass direct from Trent Sainsbury to Massimo Luongo through one of very few channels the Koreans allowed. Even then, the pass needed Luongo’s deft skill to quickly turn past his marker, and then shoot quickly from 20 metres out. The “Luongoal” came out of nowhere, surprising everyone. It was fitting that Luongo, the man of the tournament, broke open the game with a stunning strike.

Korea dominated the second half, as you’d expect for a team chasing the game. They kept Australia’s defence busy as the match’s pattern became a sense of could Australia hold on. These were the critical moments of the match that ultimately caught Australia out. Even though the defence, in their defence (!), were superb, managing to repel almost everything, facts are that over an entire half, Korea would always create a few chances regardless of Australia’s defensive integrity. It ultimately became a matter of when Korea did, or whether Australia could exploit the open space available. Weaknesses in such situations were already observed in Australia’s previous two games and such profligacy would be punished against Korea. That Korea took until 91 minutes to slip a ball through for an equaliser, only made it heartbreaking for Australia, not undeserved for Korea

Reputedly, coach Ange Postecoglou told his players that extra time would be about making the Asian Cup story even better. Australia came out stronger and scored just before the end of the first period of extra time. It was a tenacious effort by Tomi Juric, who scrambled after a ball, was then doubled teamed on the goal-line, managed to flick the ball through the legs of a defender and then cross it low for James Troisi to slam home the spillage from goalie’s interception. The second period was part 2 of Korea on the press and Australia continually fluffing chances going forward. For some reason, players, when double teamed or even triple teamed, want to flick the ball through somehow. Fine if there’s no choice; terrible when you have a teammate on both wings in the clear, as was the most galling example by Juric really late in the game. 3-1 and you kill the game. Even when cramped in space, there still seems the obsession to pass it to other players tightly marked, rather than look for the obvious route out of a free play that there must be if the opposition is crowding you. This caused constant turnovers and must be the next step of Postecoglou’s development with the team. The two goals Australia scored were closer to a freak nature than of any great breakdown of the Korean defence.

The only disappointment with the final was the television coverage of the winning moment. With a camera still focused on Mathew Spiranovic after he repelled Korea’s final attack, those at home missed the moment of the referee’s whistle ending the game and missed seeing the jubilation of all the players on the field at once. Spiranovic seemed to have an eternity of coverage, then Postecoglou, then various players. Even the commentators missed the moment.

Asia’s Reaction

The Asian Football Confederation are ecstatic with this edition, with one official labelling it the best ever, and AFC president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa glowing in his endorsement: “The tournament itself has been tremendous. Filled with quality and excitement, it was a fantastic festival of football that the whole of Asia can be proud of. As such, allow me to congratulate Australia for hosting such a memorable AFC Asian Cup. The whole world was presented with a competition that has been remarkable in spirit and in passion, and we have Australia to thank for that.” The biggest endorsement and validation and has come from Australia itself. Not just with words, it came with action.

All the garbage you read about Australia being “racist”, especially when the subject of dealing with illegal immigration is raised, this tournament showed the entire world the inclusive and welcoming nature that is modern day Australia. It’s doubtful any other Asian nation could showcase such a vibrant and passionate feel that this nation did for almost every single game. Crowds at just over 650k are the third highest ever, only behind China 2004 (1.02m) and South East Asia 2007 (690k). Cricket’s World Cup starts shortly, and if you want an idea of a true “lemon” on the global sporting scene in terms of general worldwide interest, local interest and crowds, look to that.

FIFA’s Reaction

FIFA President Sepp Blatter was in town for the final and also remarked on the amazing staging of this Asian Cup. He surprised no one when he lamented that no World Cup had yet been held in Australia, saying it’s “an unfortunate omission in sporting history because very few countries boast such a rich sporting culture and long list of champions” and that “we can say with confidence that it would be more than deserved if Australia were to stage the World Cup at some point.” Empty words by a sly and sleazy politician leading an even more sly and sleazy organisation. The World Cup bid was a debacle and if Australia has learnt one big lesson, it’s that any future bid must be foremost about football. Because of the over-reliance on oval grounds, the proposal for 2022 benefitted Australian Rules the most. Also the time of year, with Qatar 2022 certain to be staged in the northern winter, FIFA must formalise a flexible schedule so that a bidding nation can showcase the sport at its best.

With both the Asian and African Cups on in January, European clubs can clearly cope with this time of year, especially when most have winter breaks. The World Cup is only an extra week over those two continental ones. Even then, once the knockout stage started, Australia revived its A-League schedule during the Asian Cup. Therefore it’s only 3 weeks, maybe four, that the few European leagues not on a winter break (name England’s) might need to shut down. One or two leagues might need to re-schedule a few matches depending on the teams in the late stage of a World Cup. Note that this would happen only once every 16 years (at worst) and if it can’t be managed, then the entire notion of “world” in the World Cup needs to be re-examined.

Asia’s Future

Some unsavoury, older, comments emerged during the week about West Asia’s discomfort with Australia in the Asian confederation. It’s quite understandable considering many of them see it as Australia taking a World Cup spot without the region gaining much else in return. West Asia probably couldn’t care that much that the Asian Cup was such a success because, again, there’s no direct benefit to them. The reality is that strong teams make other teams stronger and that wallowing within your own little construct will only keep you down. We see that manifest with most Arab nations left behind at international level because their leagues have stagnated. Of the 10 Middle Eastern teams in Australia, seven went home after the group stage, with two of the 3 survivors coming out of a group of four Middle Eastern teams.

The World Cup situation has a simple answer. Rather than reduce competition (ejecting Australia has almost zero chance anyway), or contemplate the farcical notion of splitting West Asia entirely from the rest, Asia should embrace more competition. When Australia joined Asia, the expectation was that Asia’s final spot would be a playoff with Oceania. That occurred in 2010 when Bahrain lost to New Zealand, only to be dropped for 2014 when FIFA decided the two inter-continental playoffs should be randomly drawn. Asia copped South America where Jordan lost to Uruguay. Now is the time Asia seize their destiny and guarantee a full fifth spot by bringing Oceania into the fold. It’s a joke of a region, containing only New Zealand and 10 tiny Pacific island nations. There’s a reason Australia were desperate for decades to leave. With the Asian Cup expanding to 24 teams for the 2019 edition, and an expanded qualifying path for the 2018 World Cup, it makes even more sense to add Oceania to the mix to make a broader confederation representing all of Asia and the Pacific.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

On the precipice of mission accomplished

28 January 2015

26/01 Sydney: Korea Republic 2 – Iraq 0
27/01 Newcastle: Australia 2 – United Arab Emirates 0

Another polished performance saw Australia bound into the final of the Asian Cup after defeating the UAE 2-0. An impressive Korea Republic awaits them. Both teams won their semi-finals comfortably and both look to be the two teams entering the latter stages of the tournament in the best form and in the freshest condition. The final will be a rematch of the group A encounter in which the Koreans inflicted the Socceroos only loss. Korea enters the final not only undefeated, they haven’t conceded a goal during the entire tournament. While Australia has scored far more, they have conceded two. One was the very first goal of the tournament by Kuwait, and the second the solitary goal against the Koreans.

Like the quarter final against China, the semi final against UAE was broken open by two quick goals. This time they came within the first 15 minutes of the game, rather than around half time. One was a headed corner by Trent Sainsbury and the other a mid-range shot by Jason Davidson after it pinged out from a goal mouth scramble. The goals effectively killed the match, both in the UAE’s capacity to recover, and also killed the atmosphere. At 2-0 up, Australia was only in a position to lose, and without further goals coming, there seemed little to keep the crowd interested. The UAE’s best chance came immediately after Australia’s first goal, with a shot that skimmed the post. Other than that, any encroachment into the penalty box was easily snuffed out, leaving them restricted to mostly longer range efforts.

The only blemish with Australia’s performance was, for a second successive match, the inability to consolidate a result from the many chances created. Even ignoring the referees denying several goal chances with wrong offside calls (the one against Tim Cahill when he was 2 metres in his own half was particularly ridiculous), the conversion rate must improve against the miserly Koreans.

Curiously, Sainsbury made news during the week by saying UAE’s star player Omar Abdulrahman’s laziness could be exploited: “Very tidy on the ball, not the hardest worker and I think we can exploit that”. That they did, because Abdulrahman let Davidson waft forward to ultimately score that second goal. Abdulrahman made a late rush and challenge, to no avail. Australia also kept him under control, with that early opportunity that skimmed the post the only really dangerous chance he created.

Saturday night is shaping up to be a pivotal night in Australian football. It will be the first major trophy for the men’s team (the Matildas won the 2010 Asian Cup) and even the wretched rainy weather experienced in NSW for much of the tournament has disappeared for mostly fine days leading into the big night and on the night proper. When Ange Postecoglou was appointed as coach barely more than a year ago, the clear mission was to produce a plan to maximise the chances of winning the Asian Cup. Right now, he’s on the precipice of mission accomplished.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Australia through to the semis, Iran and Japan out

24 January 2015

Quarter Finals
21/01 Melbourne: Korea 2 – Uzbekistan 0 (AET)
21/01 Brisbane: Australia 2 – China
22/01 Canberra: Iran 3 – Iraq 3 (1-1 FT, 6-7 PK)
22/01 Sydney: Japan 1 – UAE 1 (4-5 PK)

So much for the “mother of all football games” of Australia facing Iran in the Asian Cup final, with a match against Japan in the semis before that. While both Australia and Iran did their jobs in the group phase (Australia lost their last match, Iran won theirs), neither Japan or Iran could survive the first knockout game. Iran was terribly unlucky, losing a man early through a dubious red card when leading and then responding twice in extra time to draw the game level, while Japan failed to convert their rare chances eked out against the resolute UAE defence. Both matches went to penalty shootouts that proved notable for none of the four goalies able to make a save. The shootouts were decided on the kickers missing the goal totally. So much for the nonsense that shootouts are about luck. They are 100% skill and the ultimate test of nerve. Shoot straight and you convert, always.

After a tough first half, the Socceroos breezed through 2-0 over China in their quarter final. It’s amazing that a couple of goals can transform a game so much. Despite ridiculous statistics like 288 passes to 70 and 72% possession during the first half, China had Australia well contained, and looked dangerous on the break. While coach Ange Postecoglou said the strategy was to maintain possession and tire the Chinese, it looked more like he was trying to bore them to death. The vast bulk of that possession was messing about in the back line. Too often, forward approaches often resulted in the ball passed back. When Tim Cahill broke the stalemate early in the second half, it didn’t come from open play, it came from the second phase of a corner, with a delightful bicycle kick. Whether by design or accident, the ball came off the outside of his shin for the perfect angled shot across the face of goal. Fifteen minutes later, Cahill made it 2-0, this time from a trademark header from open play. From there, with China really opening up, Australia looked dangerous, creating many chances, unfortunately converting none, which is a concern.

Superficially the quarter final results seemed a great outcome for Australia. UAE in the semi finals is supposedly easier than Japan, while it will be Iraq or Korea (who knocked out Uzbekistan) in the final. The quarter final results show that the perceived difficulty factor doesn’t always correlate with reality on the day. Japan would not sit back against Australia like UAE most likely will do, so they could allow more chances to be created. Then there’s always the notorious frail Australian sporting psyche that can see them beat top teams one match then succumb to weaker teams in the next. The bravado entering these games often sees respect for the opponent lost, bullying becomes the game plan, the match doesn’t progress as expected, pressure builds, and it’s calamity. With Postecoglou at the helm, let’s hope he keeps that reigned in.

The quarter finals of the Asian Cup have been an some turnaround for Middle Eastern teams. Of the 10 that qualified for Australia, 7 went home after the knockout stage, with two that did progress coming from a group of four Middle Eastern teams. The only east Asian team that failed in the group phase was DPR Korea. Even then, DPR Korea’s supreme leader has no doubt told his people that their current world champions have demolished their group and quarter final opponents, and are on the way to winning the Asian Cup to match their World Cup winning romp in Brazil last year. That western Asia now has half the semi finalists is some redemption for their poor results over the past two World Cup cycles that’s only seen one team (Iran for Brazil 2014) qualify. Even accounting for Australia’s presence in Asia taking a spot, Bahrain failed in a playoff against New Zealand for 2010 and former powerhouse Saudi Arabia failed to even reach the final Asian qualifying phase last time. Ideally it would be good to see one of the Middle Eastern teams in the Asian Cup final, as long as it’s not the UAE.

Iran’s Red Card

Any major tournament sees issues emerge. While the group phase progressed smoothly, even to the point of producing no draws and every group finishing with teams on 9, 6, 3 and 0 points, the major talking point of the quarter finals was the second yellow card against Iran’s Mehrdad Pooladi. The clash with the Iraqi goalie was never a yellow card, and it was only made worse by the fact the referee, Australia’s Ben Williams, forgot Pooladi was already on a yellow. The Iraqis then reminded the referee of the case, to which the red card was issued.

The big question: would the yellow have been issued had Williams remembered the first yellow? The thing is, it shouldn’t matter. Here you have referees – and they all do it – trying to finesse the laws of the games. It’s either a yellow card offence, or it isn’t. It seems Williams – as all referees do – consider previous behaviour before issuing a card and therefore do it for general insubordination – known as “accumulated fouling”. As we’ve seen, how can referees remember the little incidents from each player that support such a case? One such challenge is a verbal warning, second or third is a yellow. Clearly the referees can’t remember. Even worse, if there’s legitimate accumulated fouling by a player already on a yellow, only the final minor foul will be remembered for the second yellow, and therefore the red, which outrages all. How can you send someone off for barely a tickle? Well, that’s the outcome of finessing the law to include accumulated fouling.

If the incident was adjudicated in isolation, there’d be no yellow and therefore Iran keeps their man in a match they were dominating, and probably go on to win. The referee’s either confused the player, or forgotten that he issued a yellow for the earlier incident. It’s not Williams’ fault either. It’s the sport’s antiquated laws and the culture that thinks players can be moulded and taught to play the perfectly behaved game on the edge of the laws. They can’t, and humans, especially in ultra competitive sport, will always be prone to bend the laws as far as possible. In fact, such finessing of the laws by the referees only encourages it. Players on a yellow believe that only a more serious infraction than normal will earn a second yellow, so bend the rules further.

Time Wasting

The Asian Football Confederation promoted before the tournament “Don’t Delay Let’s Play Football”. Apparently they want 60 minutes of actual game time in each 90 minutes. While this tournament has been much better than others, it proved a farce in the Iran-Iraq quarterfinal once extra time started. The second period went for 23 minutes for about 5 minutes of play. Much of the last 10 minutes were taken by the Iranian goalie suffering a wrist injury and the bizarre medical practice of spraying every part of his body except his wrist with some sort of magic spray. Once the goalie was up and the ball back in play, time was instantly called. The first period also had many stoppages, and was stopped bang on 15 minutes. Again, you blame the sport’s antiquated laws and culture. If you want 60 minutes of game time, simply have 30 minute halves and stop the clock on every single stoppage, just like in American football. Once time is up, play is stopped once the ball becomes dead. Extra time period is 10 minutes, or even 5 minutes. Right now, 15 minute halves seem too much as players are clearly conserving energy even during regulation time to prepare for ET.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

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

Australia vs Kuwait: Satisfying result, good performance

10 January 2015

09/01 Melbourne Rectangular Stadium: Australia 4 – Kuwait 1

Let’s be realistic. The true measure of “performance” is the result. For all the neat inter-play and possession, it’s rubbish if you can’t defend well or create chances. Ignoring the two late goals, the first half performance was adequate at best, dire at worst, given that the Socceroos conceded too easily from a corner and didn’t create much themselves. The feeling in this lounge room last night was of anguish and frustration one minute, then jubilation and satisfaction the next. That was clearly echoed at the stadium as well, and no doubt living rooms all around the country. Why should two random events affect our senses so much? That’s because we’re not watching figure staking, where “artistic appreciation” has significant value in the performance. We’re watching a battle where skills and strategy dominates, and in that sense, the result – a dominant 4-1 win – was the metric that we judge performance, and therefore it proved a good one.

After a tough, uncompromising first 30 minutes, which included going behind so early on 8 eight minutes, Australia found the avenues to goal through quick ball movement rather than the ponderous fluffing around that has blighted the team. Kuwait easily subdued the “possession game” with two walls of defenders, and because these walls were so deep, that created huge space between the Australian last line and the Kuwaiti first wall of defence for dangerous counter-attacks. For much of the half, the strategy worked, until Australia finally worked it out by quickly getting the ball into the danger zones. Rather than trying to beat two or three opponents, just get the ball in before the defence is settled and space marked. The first goal came from a quick throw in that Massimo Luongo was able to skip between two defenders and pass to Tim Cahill, while the second was Ivan Franjic delivering a wide cross onto the head of Luongo.

With Australia leading, that really opened game in the second half, of which the Socceroos exploited. Robbie Kruse won a penalty for Mile “Mike” Jedinak to score, while James Troisi slammed home the final goal in injury time from a tight angle after bullocking work by Matthew Leckie. Between that came Leckie hitting the crossbar and Nathan Burns had two great chances: the first a skimming header that hit the bar; the second a shot straight at the goalie’s feet at close range from a Leckie cross. Leckie might have been man of the match had some of his better work had more material effect. Instead it went to Luongo, who effectively broke the game Australia’s way with the assist and then his goal. Kuwait only had two good chances in the second half: one from outside the box was touched onto the bar by Mat Ryan, while the second was easily blocked from a tight angle.

The only negative from the occasion was at 1-0 to Kuwait when one of the Kuwaiti players going down and writhing on the ground, seemingly having a seizure. Naturally, after calling on the doctors, that magical paint used for the sidelines revitalised his ravaged body and he was straight back on. While loath to accuse any such player of time wasting, surely there’s a duty of care from the sport that any player going off on a stretcher, especially one having a seizure, is given a thorough medical examination before being allowed to return to the pitch. FIFA could easily mandate such an examination, or at least a waiting period, by banning a player for 10 minutes from returning to the pitch if they call on a doctor or stretcher.

The key for Australia is to consolidate against Oman on Tuesday. While commentators cluelessly rave about the importance of getting a result in the first match, ultimately it’s menacingly if you lose the next two. There’s no double points for the first match. Even more perilous for Australia is that if both Oman and Korea beat Kuwait (accepted as the weakest team in the group), then Australia’s win is nullified, with only the goal difference having relevance. Teams mathematically can be eliminated from the group phase with two wins. Such cases see one team (ie: Kuwait) lose all their group matches, with the remaining teams recording a win and a loss against each other (ie: Oman beats Korea, Australia beats Oman, Korea beats Australia). The ideal result involving Oman and Korea today is a draw, meaning Australia beating Oman guarantees them the knockout stage. If there’s a win in the Oman-Korea game, then there’s real pressure on Australia to beat Oman, otherwise it’s do or die against Korea. Thing is, even beating Oman, Australia still might enter that Korean game with the requirement of not to lose.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Japan 2 – Tim Cahill 1

19 November 2014

Osaka: Japan 2 – Australia 1

As much as Australia tried, they could not match it with Japan last night’s preparation match for the 2015 Asian Cup. While the performance of the opening half looked good, the second half dominance by Japan put it into context. For all the bravado of coach Ange Postecoglou stating in the press that the Socceroos will go hard from the start and will stick to the plan throughout, Japan deferred to that strategy, allowing Australia plenty of possession and to expend much energy, before reversing the strategy for the second half and over-running a tiring Australian team.

For all the good of the first half “performance”, other than Matthew Leckie having a clear header well saved, Australia’s chances were minimal. In fact, Japan eked out slighty better ones. For all the hyperventilation over the abhorrent defending of a corner that led to Japan’s first goal, Japan quite easily could have been a goal or two up at that stage. Yes, while converting chances is the primary measure of results in football, context is even more important when talking about performance. That soft goal did not obfuscate Japan’s dominance, so if we want to mark the team on performance, forget about it. Tighter marking at corners can be easily fixed. It’s elsewhere that there are still problems.

Within seven minutes of the first goal, Japan scored a second with a glorious flick reminiscent of David Villa for Spain against Australia at the World Cup. In fact, there were many similarities with that game as to last night’s in terms of tempo and the ability of both Spain and Japan to effectively control the match despite being in deficit with possession in the respective early stages of their games. Possession is useless unless it’s used wisely, and that is still Australia’s greatest problem. Too many wayward passes and poor decisions going forward, even once defensive pressure eased in the second half. There’s also still the inability to punish teams with quick breaks from the midfield when they make errors. There’s no chance of being a crack international team without developing this part of the game.

On 73 minutes, 5 minutes after Japan’s second goal, on came Tim Cahill. He scored in the dying seconds with an open header. The stunned silence from the Japanese crowd really emphasised the insecurity fellow Asian teams have of stopping Cahill. The Japanese made it known in the press before the game that Cahill was such an aerial threat, and again it was that fear was validated. It was a strange goal, because Cahill was tightly marked by two defenders just before the cross Aziz Behich, and then suddenly found himself completely clear. More concern should be for Australia, who have not found any other avenues to goal. Cahill has scored 8 of Australia’s twelve goals during the Postecoglou. The remaining 4 were either from penalties or corners, from penalties, corners or set-pieces, with Mile Jedinak scoring three of them, and the other by Bailey Wright. It’s amazing that Cahill’s been so dangerous because, under previous coach Holger Osieck, he was so impotent in the striker’s role that the Socceroo Realm implored a return to this usual lurking midfield role.

Australia’s next match is scheduled to be Kuwait as the opening match on 9 January 2015 at the Asian Cup itself. No doubt there will be a warm-up match or two just prior to the competition that will be Australia’s final chance address its weaknesses. We need to end the romance about the supposed good performances at the World Cup and accept the liabilities. Conceding 3 goals in each game is not good, and the chances created, especially against the Netherlands, was more because of them opening the game up than great creativity by Australia. Kuwait and Oman won’t allow such amount of space, and are typically wily on the break. Korea Republic is the final game. Glimpses of improvement is the best that could be said about last night’s match against Japan. To excel at the Asian Cup, Australia need volumes.

Teams

Japan: Eiji Kawashima, Masato Morishige, Kosuke Ota, Maya Yoshida, Gotoku Sakai, Makoto Hasebe, Yasuhito Endo (Yasuyuki Konno 46’), Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki (Yohei Toyoda 77’), Keisuke Honda, Yoshinori Muto (Takashi Inui 57’)

Australia: Mat Ryan, Ivan Franjic, Alex Wilkinson, Trent Sainsbury, Aziz Behich, Mile Jedinak, Matt McKay (Tim Cahill 73’), Massimo Luongo (Mitch Nichols 63’), Robbie Kruse (Aaron Mooy 88’), Mathew Leckie, James Troisi (Mark Bresciano 63’)

Goals

Japan: Konno 61’, Okazaki 68’
Australia: Cahill 90+2’

Full site: 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.

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

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Shattering loss and elimination in a case of “what if”

19 June 2014

Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, Australia 2 – Netherlands 3

Out and not disgraced, Ange has made us proud

Australia is out of the World Cup after sensationally losing to Netherlands, and then followed Spain losing to Chile, confirming both teams as the first teams eliminated from the World Cup. It was a shattering loss after Australia was 2-1 up, had a glorious chance to score a third, had another glorious chance at 2-2 to retake the lead, only to be bitten hard on the backside with some slightly sloppy defending, eventually losing 3-2.

Most shattering about the loss is that despite Australia’s excellent effort for most of the tournament – all except the first 20 minutes against Chile, really – Australia has absolutely nothing to show for their endeavour. It’s one thing to compete well; it’s a whole new level to produce a result. It leaves a hollow feeling, and the country seems, as a whole, to have moved on from the pride of playing well against the many predictions, to a big case of “what if”. The biggest regret you can ever have from a competition is “what if”. Australia goes home with a big one.

Defence was spotlighted as the area to address heading to this match, and sadly, again, Australia conceded three goals. You’ll never get results conceding 3 goals a game. While there was none of the nervous chaos against Chile, there was still the hint of inexperience that partially allowed the final two goals, while Mark Bresciano’s errant pass when under no pressure saw a steal and quick break for Arjen Robben to score Holland’s first. Tim Cahill immediately answered back with a spectacular volley, to effectively cancel out that mistake. From there, it was what if Tim Cahill did not over-hit his pass to Mathew McKay on the break to allow him a close shot on goal or better crossing chance for a chance at 3-1. What if Tom Oar’s cross to Mathew Leckie was at a convenient height, rather than at his chest to allow an easy save and keep the score 2-2. What if Jason Davidson learnt from his previous problems of poor defensive awareness, and not play Robin Van Persie onside for the Dutch equaliser at 2-2. What if Mathew Ryan managed to save the difficult dipping, a swerving shot from Memphis Depay that saw the Dutch take the lead. So frustratingly, that goal came directly from a counter attack from the Leckie miss. Australia scores that, it’s 3-2 to them. Instead it’s 3-2 to Netherlands. What if. What if. What if. It plainly sucks.

The one area of true pride that can be gained from this tournament is with coach Ange Postecoglou. He typifies everything that it means to be Australian – a good, and decent, Australian. Ambitious while being respectful. Confident while being realistic. With the Socceroos humble place in the world of football, it allows these great attributes to shine. Too often, in other sports, in which Australia dominate, the “respectful” and the “realistic” part of the equation goes missing, to the point that we become obnoxious bullies and spoiled brats. Ange keeps these virtues in harmony primarily by strength of his own personal character. Even at Brisbane Roar with the two championships and that record undefeated run, he remained the statesman and a servant to the greater good, to that of the sport. With the Socceroos, he takes that to service to another level, to the good of the country. He’s made this fan most proudest of our team probably ever. Australian of the Year? Prime Minister? A knighthood? While the instinct is to cheer wildly for that, Ange just wouldn’t have a bar of it.

Tim Cahill has played his last World Cup game. He copped a yellow against Holland in an unnecessary and reckless foul. That’s Cahill. It’s part of his character. On one hand there’s the bravado and cheek and irresistible attribute to pop up for a goal at the most opportune possible. On the hand there’s the arrogance and petulance and frustrating attribute that can harm Australia’s greater good. Note his red card against Germany in the last World Cup that saw. Cahill might say his greater good are the goals, and without his flaws, he just wouldn’t be the player he is. Maybe he’s right, and he bows out with the best goal of the tournament so far. It was a wonderful volley on the end of a sweeping cross from Ryan McGowan, and immediately after Holland had taken the lead. He’s been simply irrepressible, right to the end, and will be greatly missed.

Mark Bresciano picked up a hip flexor injury and is unlikely for the next match, meaning his World Cup career is over. He could count himself lucky to get a third tournament – being the only senior player with Cahill to survive the rejuvenation purge, and that’s despite playing in the Qatari league and coming of a four-month FIFA suspension and injury concerns. Whether it’s age or simply a result of playing in those rubbish Middle Eastern leagues, he was often caught dwelling on the ball, most particular this game that led to the Netherlands’ first goal. His touch was off, his speed lacking and his shooting was disappointing. Either way, it must be a blanket rule from now on that anyone in such a substandard league automatically disqualifies themselves for the Socceroos. In Oliver Bozanic, there’s a worthy option as a successor. Immediately when he came on for Bresciano’s after 50 minutes, Bozanic created the penalty opportunity that saw Australia equalise.

Ironically, Australia gets its wish of facing World Champions, Spain, in the final group match with Spain having nothing to play for. The prediction – or hope – was that Spain would be already qualified for the second phase. In actuality, they lost their second match too, losing 2-0 to Chile, to arrive at the final group match dejected and disconsolate in a battle to avoid last place in the group. Australia only needs a draw to achieve that target. It’s nothing less than they deserve.

Full site: socceroorealm.com