Australia’s World Cup qualification attempt may have started off on the wrong foot, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Matt Tilby defends the Green and Gold on the road to Brazil 2014.
In a post-game interview after The Socceroos’ gutsy 1-1 draw with Asian rivals Japan, Tim Cahill let rip with an unusually angry message to the Australian media.
“I’m bored of it,” said the 32 year old, “I’m bored of listening to that sort of stuff. The thing is we play for our country because we love it. We don’t play here to get bagged. They should support football and stop bagging us.”
Despite Cahill’s uncharacteristic outburst, it appears he has a point. The Socceroos, and football in general in this country, have been lampooned by certain sections of the print and online media for years. Regardless of whether the news is good or bad for the game, these nay-sayers have more often than not pushed this sport down, rather than promote it, see the positives and give it all the help it can get. This negative attitude was more prevalent than ever after their game against Oman last week.
Let’s be honest, a goalless draw in Oman against a team expected to simply just roll over is worrying, but you have to look at the conditions these players played in. Even at kick-off, scheduled for 5pm local time, the temperature was hovering around 40°c. Personally, I’ve been in that sort of weather, and it’s hard to simply stand up, let alone run around for 90 minutes. It was even tougher to take, knowing that beforehand, Japan had just dismantled Jordan 6-0. This team would be tough to beat.
So, as usual, the media’s claws were out in the lead up to the crucial game against the Blue Samurai on Tuesday, with some calling the Japanese squad “the best ever assembled”. No arguments here. With a forward line consisting of Okazaki, Honda, Kagawa and Endo, many wondered how Australia would survive. These players were at their scintillating best against Jordan, with their pass-and-move mentality proving a handful for Jordan, and given the state of Australia’s aging backline, it provided an interesting matchup.
I was at this game, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. On paper, this could have been over by halftime. Thankfully, games aren’t won on paper (thank you, FIFA commentary) and my expectations were wrong, as it was the Socceroos getting out of the blocks quickest. A flurry of activity upfront saw Australia unlucky not to go in front. Shots from Alex Brosque and highly criticised wingback David Carney needed to be blocked, while multiple chances came from corners.
But as the game wore on, it was easy to see the skill this young Japanese side showed. With new Manchester United recruit Shinji Kagawa orchestrating, Japan went on wave after wave of dangerous counter-attacks, with only sloppy finishing in the final third hindering their cause. Unfortunately, this is where the game would head south, as substitute Milligan was sent off for a second yellow card offense – a fairly normal lunge for the ball – which Australian manager Holger Osieck simply described as “dubious”. It would prove to be vital as Kurihara scored, much to my dismay. And several expletives were yelled.
What happened next is what pleased me most about the performance.
In previous years, and under previous managers, Australia would hide in its shell and play a much more defensive game when a player has been sent off. You don’t need to go too far for an example – Pim Verbeek’s unnecessarily defense-heavy gameplan against Germany at the first group game in South Africa in 2010 came back to bite him in the arse. Opting to place recognised striker Josh Kennedy on the bench and instead start Tim Cahill up front, Verbeek played a cautious game fearing that an attacking display might have them falling on their own sword. It happened anyway; Cahill was sent off and resulted in the footballing equivalent of a headless chicken, losing 4-0 and effectively ending their campaign.
There was no such tactic here, as Osieck’s gung-ho style of short passes mixed with the occasional long ball to Alex Brosque proved a handful. This style of play worked well and hopefully Holger perseveres with it, as there’s no point in changing it so quickly. Even after Australia’s equaliser, a rather soft penalty scored by Luke Wilkshire, the Socceroos went on the offensive, and would have easily been ahead, had Sasa Ognenovski’s shot gone the other side of the bar. This willingness to push forward with the man sent off was fascinating.
So, the game finished 1-1, and plenty of positives to come out of a game many thought Australia would have little chance in. Lucas Neill, who captained the side, said that the Aussie spirit was on show here, while Cahill believed that the Socceroos had gained a psychological edge against Japan. This positive performance had many people who were originally criticising the team eating their words. But the hardest tests are still to come.
When a team’s average age is 30, and the youngest player on the pitch (in this case, Alex Brosque) is 27 years old, you start to wonder about how quick this team can be. This follows on from a comment I made in my last article about the large amount of ageing players being selected for the team. Despite young Hertha Berlin striker Nikita Rukavytsya and defender Mark Milligan being brought on during the course of the game, it still doesn’t help the situation. Remember Michael Zullo and Tommy Oar from the last article? Nowhere to be seen.
I know I sound like a broken record on this topic but thankfully it’s a belief that many people have as well, and not just me. Comments on message boards lit up about the team’s “glory days” and how they need to move away from the fascination of 2006 and select a team of unproven youngsters. An interesting comment I found was about how this particular user would rather risk failing to qualify for Brazil 2014 using players set up for the future, than easily qualify with “this old mob”. It’s an interesting line to toe, and one that provides a lot of debate, but it remains to be seen whether this makes any difference.
Australia is away to Iraq and Jordan in the next two matchdays of World Cup Qualifying. It’s a predicament the Aussies have been in before, having lost to Iraq in their attempt to qualify for South Africa. But with the performance and the experience in these conditions, the old heads of the Socceroos stand just as good a chance of qualifying as anyone.