Sunday, 27 June 2010

Australia - the wash-up

In the end, it was as I predicted. Not that I'm wanting to gloat, and I wished it had all ended differently. But Australia's failure to progress from the group stage was always going to be the most likely outcome.

Pundits and Aussie coach Pim Verbeek pointed to our 4-0 drubbing by Germany as the reason for failure. Not sure I agree. After that game we knew wins against Ghana and Serbia would get us through. We didn't achieve that - and didn't get through.

We weren't helped along in our quest by being down to 10 men in two games. Tim Cahill's red card in the second half against Germany was probably harsh, although his tackle was reckless and naive. Harry Kewell's first half red card v Ghana, despite the hysteria in Australia, was merited. It capped a thoroughly miserable campaign for Australia's pin-up boy (well, Channel 9's at least). But we did have chances to put Ghana away, even though we were disadvantaged numerically. Wilkshire, Kennedy and Chipperfield would have wished for calmer heads and a more adroit touch when faced with gilt-edged chances.

Our strike force always looked under-strength. Verbeek chose only three strikers in his squad - Kennedy, Rukavytsya and Kewell - didn't select any to start against Germany or Ghana, and none of them scored in the three group games. Richard Garcia was bizarrely given a forward assignment in the Germany debacle.

In midfield, it was a very mixed bag. Grella totally down on form, then fitness. Bresciano struggled to impress, a victim of an injury-interrupted few months. Culina went missing for long periods. Cahill only showed against Serbia what he was capable of. Valeri certainly wasn't the worst of this bunch. Emerton did quite well given his long absence leading to the finals. The best, incredibly, was the much-maligned Brett Holman. He was sparky in each of his appearances, and scored a wonderful goal against Serbia. In hindsight, Pim should have given him more minutes.

The concerns in the middle of defence, amplified in the warm-up games, were there for all to see against Germany. Moore, exposed in that fixture, lifted for the Ghana game, which will be his last in the green and gold. Lucas Neill didn't have a great tournament, as player or captain. Beauchamp was an adequate replacement for Moore against Serbia.

Luke Wilkshire contributed throughout, albeit out of his depth on occasion. Chipperfield was poor against Germany, but came back well in his Socceroo swansong. Carney battled gamely.

Pim Verbeek lost his nerve before the Germany game, upsetting team balance with a bizarre line-up bereft of attacking intent. Although pundits such as Craig Foster were totally unforgiving in their damning of Verbeek, the Aussie boss got his tactics more or less right in the last two games. His legacy for Australian football however will be rather anonymous.

Australia now faces a challenging road for 2014 qualification, with the 2006 generation probably all gone by then. Moore and Chipperfield have retired, and Emerton, Kewell, Bresciano, Neill and Grella unlikely to go beyond next year's Asian Cup finals. Culina, Cahill and Schwarzer may last a little longer. Wilkshire, Valeri and Holman may form the basis of the next challenge.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Kiwi joy contrasts Aussie gloom

A delight to see New Zealand snatch a late equaliser against Slovakia in their first finals appearance since 1982. Most of the football world were expecting the plucky Kiwis to be the whipping boys of the tournament but it became quite plain quite quickly in this fixture that they were not going to be over-awed - well not by Slovakia at least.

The attitude from the All Whites even before they arrived in South Africa was quite refreshing. Simply, they had already achieved their goal - to make it to the finals. Anything in addition to that would be pure bonus. And indeed, the bonus has already been realised, with their first point ever in the finals.

Compare and contrast the teeth-gnashing over in the Aussie camp. They have set themselves a target of getting to at least the final 16. And such expectations have been amplified and exaggerated by the mainstream media and the much of fan-dom back in Australia. So therefore in light of their stunning failure against Germany such ambitions appear stymied, just 90 playing minutes into the tournament.

Over my lifetime there's been a ebb and flow between the respective fortunes of the Australian and New Zealand national football teams. Traditionally set against each other in World Cup qualifying, the Socceroos had the edge over the All Whites in the 1970s, managing outright qualification in 1974.

Come 1981 and the tables had turned. Australia lost its way principally owing to the brief and erratic reign of football journeyman Rudi Gutendorf. After the godlike Rale Rasic had been the victim of petty politics, Gutendorf was the third in line of distinctly unimpressive Socceroo managers - Brian Green, who was sacked after caught shoplifting, then the unknown Jimmy Shoulder who failed miserably.

Meanwhile over in the Kiwi camp, Poms John Adhsead and Kevin Fallon assembled a solid bunch of amateurs and semi-pros. After a 3-3 draw in New Zealand, the united Kiwis managed a historic, deserved 2-0 win in Sydney over a clearly disunited Australia. Gutendorf was sacked on the spot, and New Zealand progressed to final Asian qualifying, which turned out to be an epic tale. Nearing the end of the phase, having copped a late equaliser in a critical tie in Kuwait, the Kiwis trudged to Saudi Arabia needing a 5-0 away win to equal China's record, 6-0 or better to progress. History records they blitzed their opponents in the first 45 minutes, scoring 5 times, aided at this stage by an emerging Wynton Rufer, yet in the second half couldn't find the net again. Thus a play-off against China was required; a 2-1 win got them to Spain.

The All Whites managed to out-do the Aussies 1974 effort by actually scoring in Spain, but they lost their three games (the Aussies had eked out a point against Chile).

From 1986 onwards however, the Aussies were back on top, and apart from an Oceania Nations Cup win in 2002, the Kiwis ambitions were continually blocked by their "West Island" neighbours. This all changed for 2010 qualifying with their path suddenly laid clear with the Aussie defection to Asia.

What the rest of the tournament will bring for Kiwis isn't clear. They will be hoping to avoid embarrassment. They've made a very good start in that regard.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Aussies humiliated in Durban

It was a night of acute pain for Australians - fans and players alike - as the Socceroos were outplayed and out classed by Germany. The shortcomings of our squad were exposed and amplified by a bewildering team selection by Verbeek, then the despair was completed with the harsh sending off of strongest outfield player Tim Cahill.

If Verbeek has been known for one thing it has been his blind devotion to players and formations. Thus it was a major surprise to see Richard Garcia given an attacking spot alongside Cahill, and for Bresciano and Kennedy to be dropped to the bench. Verbeek stated the latter two hadn't shown good from in the lead-up games, but then neither had Garcia. As it turned out Garcia had a great opportunity in the opening minutes to put Australia ahead, a half-chance that perhaps a Scott McDonald may have taken, but that chance was spurned.

One thing Verbeek can't be blamed for was the very poor performance of Lucas Neill at the back. His attempt to catch the German attackers offside ahead of their opening goal was poorly judged and naive. He gave Klose too much space for the German striker to make it no.2 later in the half, and Neill seemed more occupied with berating the officials than on lifting his team. Reflecting on Neill's pre-match extolling of the German's superiority, one wonders if he had the fight for the contest. Whatever his motivation, like several of the ageing Aussies his form is a fading shadow of 2006.

Brett Emerton provided a rare bright spot for Australia on his return from injury, but apart from Wilkshire and a good second half performance from Holman, the Socceroos were very poor. The options for Verbeek are limited. We simply don't have the depth in the squad to try a lot different to what we saw last night. Kewell and Bresciano will surely play some part going forward. Australia can still make the second round with wins in its remaining games, but the chances of success appear remote.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Yanked back to reality

And so it comes to this. No more warm-ups, no more what-ifs, no more how-abouts. Aussie boss Pim Verbeek has declared his hand, leading out with the same starting XI for the final two hit outs against Denmark and the USA. With the average Aussie football follower now thinking - is that it?

For the cold, hard reality is this - our best is looking pretty average. Against the US, we were exposed where we feared we would all along - in the soft centre of our defence, and in our lone attack.

The preceding Denmark fixture was, in retrospect, a distraction from the conclusion. An anonymous, somnambulant ninety minutes with players drifting around the park, trying to control the ball, trying to create something. Blame the ball, blame the pitch, blame ... well just blame. And Australia coming out of it with some quiet comfort having edged the game courtesy of Kennedy's scrappy strike.

Compare and contrast the US bouncing out with open, honest intention on Saturday and the Aussies just couldn't live with it. 3-1 should by rights have been 5-1, in any case our first loss ever to the stars and stripes.

Craig Moore was exposed for the second time in three games and Pim's resolve to keep him in the starting line-up ahead of Beauchamp must be wavering. Up front, lanky Josh Kennedy's shortcomings were evident, fluffing two excellent chances to score. Tim Cahill scored a nice goal, but generally has looked ineffective the last three outings. Grella continues to be a liability.

Amid the gloom, some brief rays of light. Veteran Scott Chipperfield has added great value overlapping on the left, and game-shy Bresciano has been gathering form. Luke Wilkshire largely remains dependable.

And occupying massive column inches, particularly for the great unwashed (and for his Nine Network sponsors), is the Kewell question. Will he, won't he? Well, even the most optimistic now concede neither he nor the similarly impacted Emerton will start against Germany. I'll wager Kewell will be given 20 minutes at most.