John Aloisi after slotting the penalty that got Australia past Uruguay and into the World Cup
It may not seem that long ago that John Aloisi planted that penalty in the top-right corner of the net to send the Socceroos through to their first World Cup finals in thirty-two years. And it has been a long-time coming for Australian soccer fans who have witnessed a succession of qualification farces, which whether due to FIFA polito-kicking, maladministration or sheer rotten luck have seen World Cup campaigns synonymous with a repetition of narrow, agonising defeats.
This agony of fate can be encapsulated in one dramatic match, the Australian-Iran qualifier at the MCG, which in a matter of minutes saw the atmosphere of premature celebration dissipate as Iran, outplayed for the majority of the game, nicked two quick goals to steal through to Paris.
From that moment onwards it almost seemed part of some form of cosmic pre-destination that the Australia team would never partake in the biggest individual sporting competition in the world.
Yet, after more signs of hope, followed by more disappointment this finally changed. This would all change with the arrival of the phlegmatic Dutchman Guus Hiddink who answered the new football association’s emergency call to revitalise an ailing team that had been soundly trounced at the Confederations Cup. For arriving in the managerial hot-seat with little preparation time before the pivotal playoff with the fifth-placed South American team, there was an abundance of pessimism about the prospects of defeating a Uruguayan team that had overcome both Brazil and Argentina in earlier qualifiers. However, after two engrossing legs the Socceroos did just enough to send the Uruguayans packing in a delightful act of revenge.
So can the man affectionately known across the country as GOOS emulate his previous success with the Dutch and South Korean teams and send the Socceroos through the later stages of the finals, or will the trip to Germany be short-lived as the world cup novices come a cropper to more experienced opposition? Well despite media reports to the contrary Australia should have every opportunity to progress beyond the first rounds, the group draw we received is reasonably favourable to us (we avoided the group of death that included Argentina, Holland, Ivory Coast and Serbia and Montenegro). And while we share a group with the defending champions Brazil, we are more than capable of competing with both Japan and Croatia.
The Socceroo Line-Up
Having watched the last half a dozen games, the Socceroo line-up going to Germany should be the strongest we have committed to a competitive event. And what a contrast today’s national squad makes with its European-based professionals to the local part-timers that took to the national stage at 1974. I have to say that Australian soccer has definitely evolved in quality, despite years of perceived public apathy, endless internecine squabbles and poor infrastructural support. It has to be a sign of progress that no longer can the national team be characterised as “pluggers” in adopting the long-ball tactics favoured by struggling lower division teams. We might be some way off the precision of Holland, the individual skill of Brazil and the durability of the Italians but the ugly predictability of days gone are mostly behind us.
For the gradual improvement is evident in the amount of players that have established themselves at some of the elite teams of Europe. And what in particular that has really impressed me over the last five-years has been the improvement in midfield, which for too long had lacked the creative spark to threaten the world’s top defences. This has all changed with the arrival of goal-scoring midfielders Marco Bresciano, Tim Cahill and of course prodigal son, Harry Kewell whose return from injury was a significant factor in trumping the South American opposition. And it would be remiss to neglect the man sitting in the holding role Vinnie Grella who often performs the role of unsung hero through his patient positional sense and ball-winning prowess. And when you can add the likes of Josip Skoko, Jason Culina it shows there is plenty of depth to add to the midfield mix.
Up-front which had also for some time been a bugbear for the Socceroos, a lack of goals costing the team so much in its 1998 and 2002 qualificatoion efforts also looks back on the improve. For with Mark Viduka back from injury and returning to scoring form at Middleborough and John Aloisi impressive in recent national outings, there is much more to be hopeful in this area. And with an improved supply from midfield inspired by a more confident attacking outlook encouraged by Hiddink, this team finally has the potential to breach the defence of some of the stronger teams.
However, it is at the back where this team could again be exposed. Unfortunately as many past outings attest the Australian backline has proven all too vulnerable, having for some years lacked pace, been prone to brain-explosions and lacked the fluidity to connect with the players further up the field. Fortunately the defence has had a little bit of luck with the return to match-fitness of Craig Moore (after being in the doghouse at Borussia Monchengladbach and Newcastle earlier in the season) whose experience and poise should buttress the back three. Add to this the good news that Tony Popovic is back playing regular football at Crystal Palace and combine these two veterans with one of the Premiership’s most underrated (and yellow-carded) players Lucas Neill and the Socceroo defence has a much firmer footing at the back than on many previous expeditions.
That just leaves the wing-backs, which are something of a contested decision. For game one I’ve given incumbent left-wing back Scott Chipperfield the nod over Stan Lazaridis whose injury ravaged season at under-performing Birmingham has not helped. While I’m making a guess following watching Guus Hiddink’s decision to deploy Jason Culina at right-back for PSV that the versatile midfielder might be shifted to replace the often over-extravagant Brett Emerton on the right who has lacked consistency at Blackburn for some. That just leaves the custodian of the goals with Mark Schwartzer (assuming a full recovery from a fractured cheekbone) will hopefully continue his fine penalty-saving record in international competition.
So the Australian team should look something like this:
Viduka Kewell Bresciano Cahill Grella Chipperfield Culina Popovic Moore Neill Schwartzer Subs: Kalac, Bolton, Lazaridis, Kisnorbo, Vidmar, Beauchamp, Emerton, Skoko, Milicevic, Thompson, Aloisi, Brosque
Coming Soon: Rating the Opposition (Japan, Brazil and Croatia)