Russia 2018 – Australia vs Peru Review, What Went Wrong, Tournament Player Ratings

28 June 2018

This World Cup was always more about hope than expectation, and that hope was only ever a tentative one. A solid performance in the 2-1 loss to France provided a small spark of hope that Australia could beat Denmark in their next match and set a strong course for the next phase. That spark quickly extinguished when Denmark scored early, only for it to reignite when the Socceroos equalised not long after. Alas, no. Despite dominating much of the game, Australia were unable to get a winner, so were faced with the double jeopardy of beating Peru and hoping France beat Denmark.

Entering the final game against Peru in Sochi, it was almost a continuation of the Denmark game. Australia dominated early, failed to convert opportunities, and then went behind on 17 minutes. Four minutes into the second half, it was another goal for Peru, and any flickering hope we had now changed to putting us out of our misery and ending this campaign that always seemed forlorn. A late Peruvian shot hit the post to avoid a more embarrassing 3-0 loss. Not that an Australian win would have mattered, as France and Denmark only needed a draw to qualify first and second, and 0-0 was the not so unexpected final score.

Aaron Mooy sums up Australia's disappointing campaign after 2-0 loss to Peru - World Cup Russia 2018

Aaron Mooy sums up Australia’s disappointing World Cup campaign after their 2-0 loss to Peru in their final game at Russia 2018. Image: fifa.com/Getty

In fairness, Peru were the second best team of the group and should have progressed. They dominated much of the action against Denmark and France with 27 shots on goal, and shot a penalty over the bar against Denmark. They lost that game that they should have won, meaning their match against Australia was only for pride. In victory, they looked as despondent as Australia did. Not only were Peru more deserving to progress, and more lethal when required, they also out-played Australia strategically. In contrast to their two frenetic opening games, knowing Australia had to win, Peru let Australia do all the running, and picked them off the break.

Peru’s opening goal was simply a lob over the top that was passed across the box for a running Andre Carrillo to hit first time into goal. Calls of offside were dismissed as Trent Sainsbury got a foot to the ball to annul the possible offside. It was Peru’s first real chance of the game, whereas Australia and several opportunities, and continued to create them. The best being a low cross by Robbie Kruse that saw Mathew Leckie just fail to connect while under pressure by two defenders, Tom Rogic shooting meekly at the goal-keeper after skipping past four Peruvian players, and an Aziz Behich volleyed cross that failed to find an open Tim Cahill.

World Cup Russia 2018 – Group C final standings

World Cup Russia 2018 – Group C final standings

A disappointing end to a totally disappointing campaign. Even the qualifying campaign was disappointing, with the team constantly conceding goals and having trouble to score goals. It came down to an intercontinental playoff against Honduras, in which, after 0-0 in Honduras, Australia won 3-1 in Sydney, thanks to a free kick and two penalties by Mile Jedinak. In Russia, it was all too familiar. Conceding goals, and the only two goals scored were penalties to Jedinak. While the lack of a killer edge up front was clearly obvious, facts are the perennially leaky defence could never be fixed. Ignoring the less relevant fact Australia hadn’t kept a clean sheet at a World Cup since the 0-0 against Chile in 1974, the more relevant fact is through the entire World Cup cycle for Russia 2018, defence has been a problem. The glaring reality is if Australia could have denied France one of their goals and Denmark their goal, they’d have made the next round.

In hindsight, there doesn’t seem much more Australia could have done. The most glaring situation was when Tim Cahill not brought on against Denmark when they were ripe for the picking. When Andrew Nabbout was injured, it’s fair to say most people were surprised that Tomi Juric came on instead. This was at a stage when Denmark, with France as their final game, were clearly happy with the 1-1 score, and were playing tentatively. Australia was in desperate need of a big moment and Tim Cahill is our big moment player. It wasn’t until Peru that he got a run – not long after Peru went 2-0 ahead – and it was all too late by then. To his credit, in that limited amount of time, he had a shot blocked after a corner, and would have had a goal at his fourth World Cup had Behich crossed better.

It would be unfair to criticise Bert van Marwijk too harshly as he arrived with only a limited amount of time with the squad, and would have judged his playing selections by his own measure. Cahill played barely any club football in 6 months so it’s not right to compare the Cahill we’ve known all these years, or even a year ago, with the Cahill of now. Remember, Ange Postecoglou had been phasing Cahill out of his starting teams long ago, and indeed, it was Postecoglou deserting Australia with mission incomplete that compromised the team’s preparation. Van Marwijk’s first match was a 4-1 loss in Norway in late March, and fears coming to Russia were a smashing by France. That the team produced three creditable and competitive performances, and put themselves in a positions to win, is a huge tick for van Marwijk, and easily offsets the non use of Cahill against Denmark, especially since we can never know if he’d have made a difference.

PLAYER RATINGS FOR THE TOURNAMENT

GOALKEEPER

Matt Ryan 6

Not at fault for any of the goals, nor made any miraculous saves or penalty saves. So it’s a “good” rating for doing his basic job.

DEFENDERS

Trent Sainsbury 7

Did little wrong at the back, other than almost conceding a penalty against Denmark, and not being quite able to intercept the pass that led to Peru’s first goal.

Mark Milligan 7

Solid in an unnatural position as a stopper next to Sainsbury. Had some good attacking flair too. Good to see him rewarded with three match starts after only playing one match in the past 3 World Cup campaigns.

Josh Risdon 6

Showed some good pace and got into good positions; unfortunately never resulted in much.

Aziz Behich 4

Not good enough at this level.

MIDFIELDERS

Mile Jedinak 6

Reasonably solid in a defensive midfield position, and reliable with penalties. General forward passing was uninspiring, or went sideways.

Aaron Mooy 8

Best player of the campaign. Let down by very few decent corner kicks, and he plenty of them to try.

Tom Rogic 7

Always looks neat and skilful on the ball, and played the two passes versus Peru that set up Kruse’s and Behich’s crosses. Otherwise, his work often results in very little, and he can’t shoot either. The World Cup is not like playing Motherwell in Scotland. Was substituted in all 3 games.

Robbie Kruse 5

Another player that looks neat, or tries to look neat. He’s lost pace, and often when he gets into good positions his crosses are rubbish or are blocked. Was substituted in all 3 games.

Mathew Leckie 8

Really stepped up when the situation demanded it. Fast and always looked dangerous. Unfortunately never quite had the support to capitalise on his work, and missed a great shooting chance late in the game against Peru by taking an extra touch.

Daniel Arzani 7

Came on all all 3 games, always looked dangerous, and twice against Denmark nearly set up a goal. Unfortunately, no actual result for his effort so it keeps his score down.

Jackson Irvine 6

Serviceable as the second midfield substitute in all three games.

FORWARDS

Tomi Juric 5

An old fashioned target man, he was neither a great target or could create much himself. A substitute for Nabbout in the first two games; started the third before being substituted for Cahill.

Andrew Nabbout 6

Looked dangerous at times, especially with his speed. Never quite got the service. Missed the final game through injury. Was substituted for Juric in the first two.

Tim Cahill 6

Only appearance was as a substitute against Peru. Did as much as he could with his 35 minutes. Would have had a goal if Behich’s cross on 71 minutes vs Peru was better.

As much as we can pick at coaches, preparation, tactics, selections and even bad luck, ultimately, the players of this generation are not good enough. During the qualifying campaign it was noted that none of this 2018 team would get a start in 2006. Perhaps the possible exception is either Mile Jedinak or Aaron Mooy for Jason Culina. Not even Tim Cahill was in the starting eleven then, and now, at 38 years old, he is still Australia’s most dependable goal scoring option. Comparing to the other teams at Russia 2018, the differences are clear. One less touch, a bit more urgent, a bit more ruthless, a bit more tricky, even a bit more cunning. We need to be resigned to the fact that World Cup success below the top echelon of nations is about generations. All teams go through it. The likes of the Netherlands can go from almost a World Cup winner in 2010 to a non-qualifier in 2018, while Italy missed out too. It’s not about grand visions, technical direction, permanent playing styles, changing landscapes and other hocus pocus ideas. It’s about youth development and growing the game domestically to ensure the best talent is attracted to the game and a pathway is provided for them to reach their full potential. Then the final polish is made with coaching, tactics, strategy and general support. The hope now is the wait for that next generation of great players is not too far away.

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Russia 2018 – Denmark vs Australia Review as VAR Succeeds Again

Russia 2018 – France vs Australia Review & VAR Controversy

Russia 2018 – World Cup Preview, Predictions & Australia’s chances

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Russia 2018 – Denmark vs Australia Review as VAR Succeeds Again

23 June 2018

The 1-1 draw against Denmark in Samara on Thursday has left Australia in a precarious position. Fail to beat Peru on Tuesday night, Australia are out. If France fails to beat Denmark on Tuesday night, Australia are out. A 1-0 win over Peru will be sufficient as long as France’s win is also a low scoring match. If it’s 3-2 or higher, Australia must beat Peru by 2 goals.

World Cup Russia 2018 - Group C standings after 2 games

World Cup Russia 2018 – Group C standings after 2 games

It’s disappointing that Australia is in this predicament after they were the better team against Denmark and blew too many good opportunities to score. The match started poorly for Australia when Denmark scored after just 7 minutes. The ball wasn’t properly cleared well after a Danish throw-in, and Denmark was able to pop the ball through an unsettled Australian defence for a relatively simple running volley by Christian Eriksen. The ashen look on coach Bert van Marwijk’s face said it all. It was a sickening opening to a match Australia entered with high hopes of winning.

Thankfully it was only 20 minutes later that Australia equalised, thanks to a penalty by Mile Jedinak. It came after the intervention of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) when the referee was notified to check the replay for a possible handball. The Australians had protested immediately when Matthew Leckie’s header towards goal was blocked and, indeed, replays showed Yussuf Poulsen had blocked the header and possibly prevented a goal. It even looked deliberate too, with Poulsen’s arm flailing in the air, so lucky to avoid a yellow card. It’s the second game in a row where Australia’s goal came from a penalty after a handball infringement and no yellow card was given.

Once into the second half, Australia began to exert its dominance as Denmark became tentative. A loss to Australia would mean Denmark would need to beat France in their final game and obviously wanted to avoid that. Sadly, Australia could not make the breakthrough, with substitute Daniel Arzani providing the best two opportunities: one a cross that slipped through the penalty box untouched, and later a shot himself from a tight angle after a burst down the wing. Another cross might have been beneficial there. Then there were other lost opportunities through the recurring problem of errant passing and poor decision making. For Denmark, a tangle between Trent Sainsbury and Andreas Cornelius could have been a possible VAR intervention for another penalty. Cornelius managed to stay on his feet, and pass to Pione Sisto for a shot just wide.

Van Marwijk fielded the same starting line-up again, and made similar substitutions, notably leaving Tim Cahill on the bench. When Australia really was needing a moment of magic, it seemed strange that Tomi Juric was used instead of Cahill. While the team has played well in both games, clearly up front isn’t potent enough. Tom Rogic can’t shoot while Robbie Kruse is too slow. Leckie has been dangerous out wide only to be let down by a lack of support for his creativity. That’s where a Cahill just pops up to nod one in. Even his presence alone benefits the team, as he’ll draw defenders and inspire more confidence. The only issue against Peru should be whether Cahill, with barely any club time in the last few months, starts the game or comes on in the second half. The chorus among fans and many commentators is at least make sure he gets a run. Instead of Kruse, it’s worthwhile to give Arzani a go from the start too. He’s trickier, and faster.

As noted, the VAR was active again, and successful again. Of course, in the bizarro world of SBS’s World Cup coverage, VAR was another misuse and wrong use. Despite Poulsen clearly blocking a goal-bound header with his arm, for Craig Foster, it wasn’t a penalty, with his primary reasoning is if it was Australia infringed, would we be happy? Yes! Just like with the Griezmann penalty against France. Rational Australians want the rules applied fairly and consistently, not on potential feelings of indignation. Then in the Brazil vs Costa Rica match, Neymar reacted to a touch, threw himself to the ground, and somehow Foster deems Neymar was impeded so it’s a penalty. Meanwhile, Griezmann was clearly impeded and he says no penalty? VAR doesn’t decide or overturn anything either. It advises the referee to check the replay, then he decides. The only issue with VAR is that perhaps it doesn’t intervene enough. No doubt it will be reviewed after the tournament, and possibly one idea is the referee asks for a review, rather than rely on VAR itself to intervene.

– Australia plays Peru on Tuesday night 26 June at midnight (00:00 27 June). France vs Denmark is at the same time.

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Russia 2018 – France vs Australia Review & VAR Controversy

Russia 2018 – France vs Australia Review & VAR Controversy

18 June 2018

Australia got the job done against France in their opening game at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Despite the 2-1 loss, the broader aim is qualifying for the knockout phase from the group, and with that, against by far the group’s strongest team, the primary aim was of damage minimisation. While a draw would obviously be better, or even to snag a win, the most realistic and critical outcome was goal difference. The 4-0 hammering to Germany in 2010 cost the Socceroos a spot in the next round, while the experimental 2014 team lost 3-1 to Chile – effectively ending their campaign when Netherlands and Spain were still to follow.

Mile Jedinak scores a penalty for Australia against France at World Cup Russia 2018

Mile Jedinak scores a penalty for Australia against France. Image: fifa.com

After a nervy start, Australia handled both themselves and France well. While France always looked the more dangerous side, eventually they ran out of ideas and Australia began to create the occasional opportunity themselves. Nil-nil at half time was perfect, and it was hoped the pattern could remain. Then, after 10 minutes into the second half, the chaos started. A penalty on Antoine Griezmann when tripped by Josh Risdon was followed within minutes by one for Australia when Samuel Umtiti inexplicably, and deliberately, handle the ball. Mile Jedinak converted while Umtiti inexplicably avoided a yellow card.

As the game progressed, Australia began to tire and became sloppy, losing the ball too often in midfield either by dallying too much on the ball or through errant passing. Eventually France would capitalise, and it happened in the last 10 minutes when Paul Pogba ran onto a loose pass and shot on goal. It deflected off Aziz Behich’s leg, over goal-keeper Mat Ryan, off the crossbar and over the line. Curiously it was awarded as an own goal by Behich. So disappointing to concede so late after all of that hard work was done.

All the post-match focus since has been about that penalty to France. It was the first time the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) had been used to determine a penalty situation at a World Cup, and it’s driven controversy online and in the media since. Much of this is through ignorance or a downright denial of reality. For those in Australia it’s been led by SBS’s Craig Foster. While initially he agreed with the decision (as the commentators did), he reversed his view and now claims no penalty. Claims that only “clear and obvious” errors are meant to be “overturned” is also misleading.

First, the use of VAR. For penalty decisions, the FIFA website says its “role is to ensure that no clearly wrong decisions are made”. There’s nothing about “overturning” a decision. With the VAR active, the referee, when in doubt, is more likely inclined not to unnecessarily stop the game and call a penalty, preferring to wait for notification from the VAR. In this particular case, the referee was notified of a possible missed decision, went and checked the video himself and awarded a penalty. His decision was never “overturned” as the system relating to penalty kicks is not about that anyway. It’s about preventing clearly wrong decisions, and denying a penalty based on the footage would have been clearly wrong. The system worked.

VAR guidelines on penalty decisions

As for the decision itself, the chorus of “he touched the ball” as somehow meant to annul further fouls is nonsense. Again, Foster has led this in Australia, primarily from picking out of context David Elleray’s (former English referee and head of VAR) admission Risdon got a touch on the ball. Even Australia’s players post-game, and captain Mile Jedinak in the press conference, blindly blathered away about this infamous “touch” – a touch that was barely noticeable and only deviated the ball’s direction by 5 degrees, if that. The touch is irrelevant, as Griezmann is still entitled to regather the ball. In his subsequent stride, Risdon lifted his leg and clearly tripped Griezmann. That’s always a penalty. The sequence of events:

Risdon/Griezmann penalty France vs Australia World Cup Russia 2018

Risdon attempts to tackle Griezmann, barely contacting the ball. Note this is outside the penalty box, so a foul would have been preferable then.

fra-pk13

Now inside the box and Griezmann into a new stride, Griezmann skips clear in pursuit of the ball while Risdon lifts his leg and drops it on Griezmann’s heel.

Risdon/Griezmann penalty France vs Australia World Cup Russia 2018

The force of the contact causes Griezmann to fall and Risdon’s leg to fly into the air. It’s clearly a subsequent incident, clearly a trip, and clearly a penalty.

David Elleray’s full quote:David Elleray on France Antoine Griezmann penalty vs Australia World Cup Russia 2018

It’s a shame there’s been so much focus on this one incident as it’s a mostly a distraction. Facts are France “handed” Australia a penalty back within minutes, reversing the damage and restoring the game to level scores. Australia lost because of their constant turnovers in midfield that gave France too many opportunities on the break. Australia were lucky not to be punished earlier. So look to the match in the broader picture, praise the team for playing so well and remaining so disciplined. Whinging won’t help. Even the complaints against France’s Lucas Hernandez constantly going down on any minor contact is irrelevant. As he admitted in the press conference, “Sometimes I exaggerate, but that’s all part of the spectacle… it also helps to take more time when you are winning.”, it’s all part of the game.

Mile Jedinak was right about one thing: It’s time to move on and look forward to Denmark. With Denmark beating Peru 1-0 in their opening game, that blocks the scenario of two draws being enough for Australia to qualify for the knockout phase. That would have been a real scenario as long as France beat Denmark and Peru by more than a goal, and all other games were draws. As it stands, and presuming France doesn’t implode and lose both of its remaining games, Australia cannot afford a loss to Denmark otherwise it’s all over. A draw will mean the final game is alive and goal difference will likely count (the real achievement made against France). A win will mean a draw is most likely enough against Peru. A win by two or more goals means a narrow loss to Peru would also be sufficient.

– Australia plays Denmark on Thursday night 21 June at 22:00 AET. France vs Peru follows at 01:00 on 22 June. The group’s final games are Tuesday night 26 June at midnight (00:00 27 June).

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Russia 2018 – World Cup Preview, Predictions & Australia’s chances

15 June 2018

“I will do it my own way.” With those words at his initial press conference, out went the old ways of previous coach Ange Postecoglou, and in come the new ways of coach Bert van Marwijk. So much for changing the landscape, or leaving a legacy, as was Postcoglou’s mission. It was always a fool’s policy that Postecoglou set, and actively encouraged by elitists in the media, that a national team can be moulded into a permanent style. National teams are representative, meaning player options are often limited, not bought or recruited from anywhere, so strengths across the field can vary through the years.

FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 Logo

With that, it was also pleasing to hear van Marwijk say “it’s important we play in a way that fits the players, and “you cannot play in a way that players cannot do.” Australia struggled through World Cup qualifying primarily because of Postecoglou’s enforced doctrine. The possession and pressing game, and always playing out from the back, was exploited, with the leaky defence never to be fixed, and experimentation with team selection never ending.

In the four internationals van Marwijk has controlled the Socceroos since his appointment late January, things are slowly improving. A 4-1 loss in Norway was followed by a 0-0 against a quality Colombian team in London, then a 4-0 win over Czechia in St Polten, Austria. Even though Czechia appeared in holiday mode and Colombia had plenty of chances to win easily (including a penalty saved and hitting the post twice), Australia looked much better on the ball in both of those games, and finished their World Cup preparations with a 2-1 over Hungary in Budapest. That was strange game in which all goals came from mistakes: Hungary’s goal-keeper fluffed a shot from range by Daniel Arzani, Hungary equalised after Trent Sainsbury’s headed back-pass went straight into the net, while Hungary responded with an own goal of their own.

Speaking of Daniel Arzani, the 19 year old was a shock inclusion into the World Cup squad. Barely with 6 months of club football under him at Melbourne City, he’s now threatening for a starting spot in Russia. His inclusion has shown a preference towards the trickier, speedier and more skilful players in van Marwijk’s teams – evidence he sees (realistically) that the overall playing strength is not at the required level to take on these pedigreed World Cup teams head on, so he’ll rely more on individual brilliance and a counter attacking game. As he says, play to the players’ strengths, not force something unusual on them or beyond their capabilities. If he can sort out the defensive frailties further, then we could in for a surprise result or two.

Can Australia reach the knockout phase?

If you take a direct form line from Russia’s 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia in the opening game, it won’t be easy. Saudi Arabia, with van Marwijk at the helm, qualified ahead of Australia. Van Marwijk then quit after negotiations to renew his contract broke down, and now Australia is lucky to have secured his services for the tournament. Although, Australia handled the Saudis quite comfortably in qualifying, are arguably a more talented team, and now have a more astute and flexible coach than previously.

France is Australia’s first match, and while the French are notoriously slow to start a tournament, no risks will be taken. Remember, it doesn’t matter when you score your points to qualify for the knockout phase, as long as you score them. With France likely to beat Denmark and Peru as well, essentially it will come down to those matches. A narrow loss to France would be sufficient, and then it’s a matter of trying to gain 4 points from the other two matches, or 6 points to guarantee it.

Denmark qualified relatively easily behind Poland in a rather weak Group E, and then disposed of Ireland in the playoffs. They look the standard, solid Scandinavian team – teams Australia generally have handled well in the past. Peru was South America’s fifth best team and qualified thanks to a 2-0 playoff over New Zealand. Even with a draw (or loss) to Denmark, the fate of Australia is likely to come down to that match, and while Australia generally struggles against South American teams, as they say in the classics, if you can’t beat Peru, you don’t deserve to be in the knockout phase.

World Cup Predictions

It’s difficult to have much confidence in Australia progressing unless those defensive problems are fixed. Scoring could be a problem too if “no goal scorers” is the second favourite at $6.50 to be Australia’s top scorer. Tomi Juric is favourite at $6. Best case scenario to qualify is a 50/50 proposition. If Australia qualified for the round of 16, the likely opponent would be Argentina. Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria are the other options.

As for the World Cup winner, the draw is always the best guide, along with general form, especially through qualifying. France, Spain, Portugal and Argentina are in the top half, so some will be eliminated before the latter knockout stages. In the lower half, Germany (who won all games in qualifying) and Brazil will steer clear of each other if they win their respective groups, while Belgium is the likely spoiler, and it would be great to see a new team win. While I certainly will be hoping for the Belgians, the tournament seems set up so well for Germany to go two in a row, with Brazil their likely opponents in the final. Given the 7-1 thrashing the Germans handed Brazil in the semi finals four years ago, a repeat match-up would be quite an exciting prospect, even if both teams have won their fair share of World Cup spoils over the decades.

Australia’s Schedule (AET)

20:00 16 June France vs Australia
22:00 21 June Denmark vs Australia
00:00 27 June Australia vs Peru (Tuesday night)

Australia’s World Cup Squad

Goalkeepers: Brad Jones, Mat Ryan, Danny Vukovic

Defenders: Aziz Behich, Milos Degenek, Matt Jurman, Mark Milligan, James Meredith, Josh Risdon, Trent Sainsbury

Midfielders: Jackson Irvine, Mile Jedinak, Massimo Luongo, Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic

Forwards: Daniel Arzani, Tim Cahill, Tomi Juric, Robbie Kruse, Mat Leckie, Jamie Maclaren, Andrew Nabbout, Dimitri Petratos

Pros and Cons of a 48-team World Cup

15 January 2017

After all the years of squabbling among the confederations for World Cup places, FIFA took the obvious answer to a surprising conclusion. While the World Cup was ripe for an increase in World Cup teams, to go from 32 teams now to 48 teams for 2026 was a drastic leap. The one caveat is the last increase was in 1998 when 32 teams participated, up from 24 in 1994. The World Cup probably should be 40 teams already, and by 2026 it will be 28 years since the last change. The format will be 16 groups of 3 teams with the top 2 progressing to the knockout phase, which adds a round of 32 to its schedule. While the number of matches overall in the tournament increases from 64 to 80, the maximum number of matches per team remains at seven.

PROS

1) More teams

This is the clear reason for expansion. Regions like Africa and Asia desperately wanted more places, and with the huge amount of money in Asia these days, it means more money for FIFA. Expect both regions to get an extra 4 spots, so Africa’s 5 becomes 9 and Asia’s 4.5 becomes 8 or 9. Oceania is certain to finally get the spot that a full member confederation deserves. They have a spot at every other FIFA tournament and the World Cup should be no exception.

2) More dreams

Teams that once had no hope to qualify now finally can dream about it. Oceania is a classic example, with the likes of Fiji, Vanuatu and Tahiti now only required to get past New Zealand, while in Asia the likes of China, Thailand, Vietnam and Uzbekistan can expect to regularly challenge for a World Cup spot. More than that, it will be nice to see these new teams at the World Cup. Look at the intrigue and excitement the likes of Iceland and Wales created in Euro 2016 when it expanded from 16 to 24 teams, or when Tahiti was Oceania’s representative at the 2013 Confederations Cup.

3) More excitement

The format means there’s one less group game and one more knockout game. While teams could often grind their way through the group phase with defensive tactics, now they need to tackly the group head on. Not so much to qualify, as 2 out of three is statistically an easier task, it’s for seeding purposes so to avoid stronger teams in the early rounds of knockout phase. There’ll also be far fewer, if any, dead matches. With 4-team groups, teams could often be qualified with one match remaining.

4) More representative of the world

Football is not a European and South American sport anymore. If they won’t cede spots to the likes of Asia and Africa to make the World Cup a fairer representation, then the number of teams must increase. Current speculation is Europe with have 16 spots (up from 13), Africa 9 (5), Asia 8.5 (4.5), South America 6 (4.5), Concacaf 6.5 (3.5), Oceania 1 (.5) and 1 for the host. The only inter-continental playoff will be Asia vs Concacaf.

CONS

1) Too many teams

Nearly a quarter of FIFA’s members will now qualify, which dilutes the basic challenge in the first place. Where’s the prestige in qualifying? Also, after two years and many qualifying games, your reward is only two games at the World Cup, not three as currently. That aspect seems an imbalance at least. In percentages terms, the number teams qualifying still quite low, particularly compared to other sports. Under a quarter of teams at football’s World Cup, compared to often 100% of Test level nations at cricket’s and all of tier 1 and most of tier 2 at rugby’s.

2) Less dreams

Sure, while the minnows are now guppies, guppies like Australia become piranhas. So much of the joy when qualifying for 2006 was that it was the first such qualification in 32 years. That mountain to conquer is already a hill in Asia, and the hill will become rubble with the extra four spots allocated. Being perennial World Cup qualifiers is not ideal for a developing nation like Australia. We need the kick up the backside occasionally, much like our youth program is now receiving after recent debacles of multiple failed qualifying campaigns at youth and Olympic level. With the move into Asia I was already prepared to accept missing one World Cup out of every 3, or even missing two in a row if the sport was in malaise. Most top European countries occasionally miss major tournaments, and if it’s ok for them to bomb out at times it should be good enough for us.

3) No 4-team group

Even with the increase of teams over the years, one time honoured staple remained: groups of 4 teams. The change to 3-team groups means each team plays only 2 matches and the odd number of teams means the final games of a group can’t be played simultaneously. This means teams can play for certain results to help others progress. While this ethical problem is quite rare in practice and still possible in a 4-team group, FIFA were always so adamant in preventing it… until now. Tied groups will also become a problem. FIFA are talking about penalty shootouts to split drawn games. That would be a disaster as weaker teams will play for draws. Goal difference and other tie-breaking mechanisms must still be used. In the worst case scenario, maybe 30 minute playoffs are introduced.

4) The squabble for spots will continue

Everyone will be happy in the short term with the extra spots. After that, watch the squabbling resume. South America are so greedy they will probably want all their countries represented. Already if you consider they will get at least 1.5 extra spots, that’s 6 out of 10 teams going. Ridiculous. As mentioned in these pages many times, spots should be based on past performances, with confederations streamlined to facilitate this. That means the Americas should be one confederation and Oceania should merge with Asia. That leaves roughly four regions of 50 teams. To each goes 8 direct spots with 1 to the host. The remaining 15 spots are allocated by previous World Cup performances over the past 3 Cups. If Asia/Oceania get 6 teams among the top 15 best performed teams, that’s six spots to them. Typically they get zero or one, so they’ll sit on 8 or 9, while Europe with usually 8 teams through will get 16 spots in total.

COMPROMISE

My personal preference is four 40 teams over 10 groups. So you still keep the 4-team group and, more importantly, make each match extra important because only 6 of the 10 second placed teams progress to the knockout phase.

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

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.

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