As the far too oft repeated Lao Tzu proverb states “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Well the Socceroos have just taken the first two major steps along the road to Rio. Let’s check out how they did.
Australia’s first qualifier came at home against Thailand in Brisbane on 6 September. In short the Socceroos turned in a woeful performance. In my longwinded review of the squad (here: bit.ly/qSBile) I expressed concern that the Aussies would be too tempted by the presence of Josh Kennedy to resist the temptation of the long ball. I also expressed confidence that the team, under the guidance of Osieck were too clever to do such a thing. I was wrong. Whether through poor tactical direction, or the players not listening, Socceroos fans were treated to a miserable exhibition of cross it to the tall dude at all costs football. I only caught the first half of the game (listened to most of the second on radio) so here are my thoughts on what I did see.
There is nothing wrong with crossing the ball in attack obviously. The issue is quality. The Socceroos, in the parts of the game I saw, did not care about where they crossed the ball from, just as long as they did cross it. Crosses were flying in from halfway, from players under pressure, just from wherever the Aussies could pull them. No player, no matter how good they are at heading the ball (and Kennedy and Cahill are bloody good) can score from woeful delivery. What was even more worrying was how the Aussies were not able to adapt when their Plan A was clearly failing miserably. There was endless bombing of the ball to the front two, when the ball needs to be worked into quality position before delivering the cross. Kennedy toiled hard, but just could not work with what he was given. Timmy Cahill was strangely out of sort with his heading game for some reason.
The Thais took the lead in the first half with a goal that game from a deadly counter attack. However the goal was heavily aided from a poor turnover and some shit marking from Lucas Neill. From what I heard of the second half, the Socceroos play picked up somewhat, but not entirely. Matt McKay got more involved from the left back position. The decision from Osieck to start McKay at left back was a strange one I feel. The game got extremely tense as the Aussies searched hard for a second goal that was a very important one, even at this early stage of the qualification campaign. It eventually came when Alex Brosque slotted home a scrambling effort. As far as individual performances go, it is hard to identify anyone who really showered themselves with glory in the match. Matthew Spiranovic who got the start ahead of Sasa Ognenovski did well. Neil Kilkenny got a start as well, but unfortunately was a bit of a non-entity in the game. I really do not think that the holding midfield one suits him. It does not allow him to impose his passing game on the other team because he is too overburdened with defensive responsibility. Even worse was Brett Holman. This was the bad ol’ Holman; the one that everyone thought should not be in the team. His performance was exceptionally poor, especially his distribution which was frankly rubbish.
This game was simply a case of the Socceroos getting out of jail. It happened a few times in the previous campaign, and in itself one horrid performance is not something to panic about. It would all be about how the team rebounded in the next game.
It is not easy getting out of bed at 3:25am on a work day to watch a game when the previous performance was so miserable. I would hazard a guess that the team may have been feeling similar actually. The journey between games involved something like 5 flights, and with precious few days separating the matches the fatigue would have been high merely through the travel. Add to this the fact that it was about 40 degrees when the game kicked off in Dammam and you could be forgiven for being a little sceptical about how the Socceroos would fare.
Osieck tweaked the line-up somewhat. Brett Holman moved forward to partner Josh Kennedy in attack with Tim Cahill relegated to the bench. Sasa Ognenovski got the start in central defence with Spiranovic moving to the bench. But probably tyhe morst significant change was the choice to bring Michael Zullo into the starting line-up at left back. Firstly because it allowed Matt McKay to move further up the park into left midfield where he was able to be much more involved and was one of the Aussies top three players. And secondly because Zullo himself was for me, the man of the match. Aside from giving away the penalty which was admittedly a little clumsy, but not too bad, he was exceptional. Especially at the start of the second half when he tore the Saudis apart with his forays forward. For me, this performance secured his spot in the Socceroos first choice XI.
The difference in performance was extremely stark. There were not the endless crosses from horrible spots. Indeed there were very few if any crosses at all until the forty minute mark. Then Luke Wilkshere floats the ball in beautifully, and importantly from a quality position and Kennedy shows just what he can do with decent ball with a phenomenal header into the bottom left corner. Josh Kennedy is a finisher, and the Aussies need to work out how best to utilise him so we can keep him in the side. Whilst his second goal was largely due to some fantastic hard-running work from Brett Holman in the stifling heat, and some atrocious goalkeeping, the assured finish from Kennedy was nothing short of world class. Speaking of Holman, he looked a whole lot better than in the Thailand game. He was fast, dangerous and importantly passing well. A Socceroos midfield featuring himself and Matty McKay on song is an improved one. Was great to see McKay and Zullo linking up well down the left. They both ran all day and Zullo’s defence shredding runs almost set up a couple of Aussie goals as the Saudis could not handle his pace. A nice piece of play by Saudis and Zullo a little clumsily clipping the Saudi attacker led to a Saudi penalty. It was extra unfortunate because in reality Schwarzer was about to mop up the loose ball. Unfortunately Schwarzer’s initial save rebounded straight back to the penalty taker who slotted home the crumbs. The 3-1 scoreline was rounded out a little later when the Aussies won a penalty of their own and it was converted by the perfect penalty from Wilkshire. Absolutely unstoppable.
So the upshot of all of this? One of the Socceroos worst performances of recent times, and one of their most impressive. Perhaps more importantly, Australia stands atop the standings with six points, three ahead already of second place Thailand. From a sheer results perspective, things could not be looking any better. As Pim Verbeek should be able to tell you though, results aren’t everything. Here’s hoping they turn in another performance like they put on the Saudis when they face Oman at home on 11 October, in a game I will hopefully be attending.