The Road to Rio #4: The Malaysia and Oman Revelation

The Socceroos played two more games over the past week on their road to the 2014 World Cup. These games were far from being glamour matchups, the first being a friendly against Malaysia, the second a qualifier against Oman. Despite the relatively low level of hype surrounding the games, the manner in which the Socceroos performed gave fans reason to be excited. Here are some thoughts on both games.

The Socceroos played Malaysia here in Canberra last Friday night. I was lucky enough to be at the game live, and for me there is nothing like seeing the Socceroos live, no matter the opposition. Unfortunately only a little over 10,000 Canberrans felt the same way as me, meaning the Socceroos played in front of one of their smaller crowds of recent times. I have read some criticism over the small crowd which I think is fair enough. Plenty of places would love Socceroos games, and I thought more would show. It is a bit of a Catch-22 situation though. Many people would have turned their noses up at the opposition. But if you can’t generate a good crowd for this game, then bigger name teams are not going to be brought. I think that if you consider that Sydney, a city of 4 million people could only manage 24,000 or so for the game that followed, an actual qualifier, then all of a sudden the Canberra figure does not seem so shabby.

Anyway, enough of that, onto the game. Put simply, the Aussies dominated. The first half was the most dominant performance that I have seen them put on in a long time, and we led 4-0 after 45 minutes. The brilliant thing that Holger Osieck is doing with this squad is bringing through the second tier of players. Rhys Williams played at right back and excelled. Williams playing in that position allowed the usual right back Luke Wilkshire to push up into the right midfield role where he was a constant threat. Alex Brosque was a bit of a revelation for me playing up front. I have never been sold on his quality at this level, but Holger has given this guy a new lease on life. He ran his guts out, both tracking back in defence and making incisive leads in attack. His work off the ball actually was phenomenal. And most importantly for an out and out striker he found himself with golden opportunity after golden opportunity. Brosque scored two goals, and were it not for a couple of shanked finishes, he really should have had four. But for me, the player of the match was undoubtedly Josh Kennedy. I write about Josh a lot, but that is because he is in my view one of our key players. It was great to see him bang in another two goals to add to his burgeoning Socceroos goal tally. But the most pleasing thing was his incredible work with his feet. I have always rated Kennedy’s ability to hold the ball up at the front. However his incisive passing was, here’s that word again, a revelation. A few of the through balls he through threw were frankly fantastic and the few knockers of Kennedy out there should watch this over and see if they still have complaints.

In the second half the intensity really fell away. The Socceroos were only able to add one more goal to their half time tally as Osieck rang the changes. The Malaysians managed to get a bit more of the ball, but were in reality a bit lacklustre throughout. The game really did peter out, but that is not to take away from the performance of the Socceroos who delivered one of the better performances of recent times. It is great to see the Aussies dominate a team, even if they were outclassed totally. I don’t care who you are playing, at the international level, if you put 5 goals away, you have done well.

The more important game of the two was Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier against Oman. A win in this game would put the Australians on the brink of going through to the final round of Asian qualifying. Osieck deployed his strongest possible side. After the experiment in Canberra on Friday, Rhys Williams again started behind Luke Wilkshire. Brett Holman was recalled, and started alongside Josh Kennedy in attack. Perhaps the only surprise was that Matthew Spiranovic was preferred to Sasa Ognenovski in the centre of defence. I am not sure the reasoning behind this, but it appears that Osieck considers the youngster a genuine first choice option. Spiranovic, much like Brosque, is beginning to fulfil his massive potential under the tutelage of the German. For me, it was also excellent to see Adam Federici play a full, important game in goals. Whilst he did not have a whole lot to do, everything he did do was assured and safe. Throw in one first class save off a free kick, and we are in save hands whenever Schwarzer is not available.

The first half was an interesting one. The opposition was of a higher quality than the Malaysians on Friday night, so they Aussies were not able to run totally rampant. But in truth they totally controlled proceedings. They held and moved the ball well. Strange though was the very small amount of chances the Aussies were able to craft. I believe that we had only 4 shots on goal through the first 45 minutes, which is really not enough when you have the kind of dominance that we did. It was also only 1-0 at half time, with the goal coming more from calamitous Omani defending than anything else. One very pleasing aspect of the game though was the Australian defence. Thailand really exposed us on the counter in the first qualifier and Oman was trying to do the same. But Spiranovic and Neil were not having a bar of it. Spira was using his height to cut out any attempted crosses proficiently, while the captain was having one of his stronger games of recent times.

For all their slick ball movement and control of the game, the Aussies only had a single goal buffer at the break. Anyone will tell you that is not a comfortable position to be in. All credit to the team then for coming out and killing the game in the second half. But they achieved it through what they had been working on all game. It was pleasing to see them not revert to long ball tactics or anything like that in order to get the all important second goal. Kennedy scored yet another goal (after providing an uber-clever step over in the build up which evidenced his blossoming under Holger Osieck better than any other incident), and Mile Jedinak finished off the scoring with a nice reflex finish from a free kick.

So where are we sitting on our Road to Rio? Still a fair way off, but things are looking very good. This round of qualifying is essentially done and dusted. We need one point from the final three matches, and whilst nothing in life or sport is a sure thing, it would take a meltdown of French national team proportions for us not to get it. But like I say, we are still a long way off. The final round of qualifying will be exceedingly tough, and all these great performances will count for nothing at that point. Except for the great playing style and team unity that Holger Osieck is building of course.

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