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

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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

Uzbekistan and Qatar hit Australia with a double shirt-front

15 October 2014

A woeful night for Australian football last night. First, the Young Socceroos were shirt-fronted out of the U19 Asian Championships in Myanmar at the group stage. Needing to beat Uzbekistan after a loss to UAE and a narrow win against Indonesia in their earlier games, their hard fought 1-0 lead vanished in the final 10 minutes when Uzbekistan equalised to secure a draw. In truth, Uzbekistan were the better team and deserved to progress with the UAE. Later, another shirt-front, this time on the senior team, which lost 1-0 in Qatar. This result came after a 0-0 draw in the UAE Friday night.

In a way, the youth team’s elimination might do some good. Asia was never meant to be a walkover. Moving there from Oceania was to be mutually beneficial. Australia would be challenged while the challenge of Australia would help the other Asian teams. Missing the occasional World Cup will be part of this process. Given the volatile nature of talent at this level, it’s also difficult to be hyper critical of the team. The elimination could just be symptomatic of Australia being down while the UAE and Uzbekistan are up. Where Oceania never exposed these flaws until actual World Cups, Asia exposes them much earlier. We know we must improve. It’s been 20 years since the country had a decent youth team. The famed “Dutch experiment”, now going almost 8 years in this country, so far has not produced anything and is almost at a point of examination.

The senior team has bigger problems. Clearly Australia don’t have the players. The front third is a joke. The defence barely any better. UAE had the best chance of their match with a shot cleared off the line. Alex Wilkinson was the saviour after Jason Davidson was caught out of position (again) on Australia’s left flank. Qatar simply waltzed through with a slick one-two move to score that match’s winning goal. In attack, Australia was mostly impotent and could barely fashion a well constructed chance. To not score in either match seems unfathomable.

Australia has one warm-up match before the Asian Cup – against Japan in Osaka next month – and that’s it. It looks like Australia will be experimenting at the Asian Cup proper when the team should be long settled. The perplexity being faced by Coach Ange Postecoglou is this contrast between coaching a club and a national team. With a national team being a representative team, there’s neither the time or the capacity to create a “Team Australia”. You pick the best players available and then get them to play their best.

Ange is also finding, much like his predecessors, that the cupboard is bare. Would you return to the older players? Certainly not on a grand scale. Would you have one or two for experience and a tad more potency? Why not. Joshua Kennedy has always proven a handful for Asian opposition, and even the long forgotten Scott McDonald might suddenly click under the new coaching regime. Even as bench or squad players, there just needs to be other options than going to an even a less experienced player.

Full site: Socceroo Realm