4 July 2008

Team for Beijing

Okay so here it is:









It seems that Arnold has gone for adaptability with his three over-age selections, current or recent A-Leaguers North, Carney and Thompson. Given that both McClenahan and Topor-Stanley have been selected, I imagine Carney will be used in the left or right attacking forward position in a 4-2-3-1, probably with Troisi on the other flank.

The selection of Archie was a bigger surprise than either North or Carney. He's still getting over a knee injury and has hardly impressed in his brief recent appearances. He'll fit into the team's on- and off-the-park dynamic okay, though.

Given the abundance of decent centre halfs and Arnold's previous strategies, Milligan might be pushed in front of the back four to partner Musialik. Or he could even play right-back, much as he is known to dislike the position. The only viable alternative is North, but I suspect he'll be asked to mark the likes of Aguero and Drogba. (EDIT: My contempt for Zadkid precluded my consideration of him on the right side of defence. I guess he'll start for sure.) Milligan may also lose the captaincy if Arnie decides to hand North the responsibility.

Strangely, Arnold hasn't opted for any midfielder possessing great flair or match-breaking ability, which could be a weakness. Nathan Burns' move to Greece probably ruled him out. Kaz Patafta has barely played of late. James Holland looked a bit raw and out of sorts against China, but even so his absence is a bit strange. Nick Ward hasn't been a major presence in that regard (but then again neither has Celeski). Sarkies would appear to be main candidate to fill the hole behind the lone striker, which could be fine if he plays at his very best. Otherwise . . . .

The selection of Zadkovich is a bit on an irritation. His capacity to play just about anywhere has helped him gain favour, I think, but he seems to lack the discipline, mentality and maturity to succeed among the very best.

I'm happier with the selections of Federici, McClenahan and Rukavytsya. The latter was the natural choice to take Bruce Djite's place in the squad. Djite like Burns will arguably gain more from training with his new club in Turkey than joining the team in Beijing at an important juncture in his career. Maybe the decision to overlook David Williams was similarly motivated, with Brondby facing UEFA Cup matches in July and August.

30 June 2008

Olympian Challenge

Assuming Graham Arnold selects the full complement of 3 over-age players in his 18-strong squad for the Olympics, there're only 15 spots up for grabs for the current U-23s.

Speculation over the 3 hasn't exactly been rife, but Kewell, Schwarzer and Holman have been mentioned as likely candidates. Each may be with a new club and hence will have a strong reason not to go. Bresciano, Sterjovski, Culina, North, Joel Griffiths, Vargas, Covic could just as easily be among Arnold's thoughts.

Assuming he takes an over-age goalkeeper, defender and striker, here's the 15 I would select to join them:


Velaphi - backup; only 2 goalies needed in a squad of 18


Topor-Stanley - probably a touch more versatile than McClenahan


N. Burns - has to go, surely
Ward - over Kilkenny and Sarkies
Broxham - one of the few mids who can perform fullback duties in a pinch



23 June 2008

Draw Mechanics

Just glossing over the AFC draw and schedule for Round Four World Cup qualification, it seems Australia will have a fortunate run for the crucial final three matches in June next year, with an easier away game preceding two home games.

Seeded in the first pot (along with South Korea, who consequently we will avoid), Australia's group foes will be determined on 27 June from the following qualifiers:

Pot 2 (one of):
  • Iran
  • Japan (or Saudi Arabia)
Pot 3 (one of):
  • Saudi Arabia (or Japan)
  • Bahrain
Pot 4 (two of):
  • Uzbekistan
  • North Korea
  • UAE
  • Qatar

The schedule for Australia will be:

Match Day 1 - 6 September 2008 - bye
Match Day 2 - 10 September 2008 - away vs first pot 4 team
Match Day 3 - 15 October 2008 - home vs second pot 4 team
Match Day 4 - 19 November 2008 - away vs pot 3 team
Match Day 5 - 11 February 2009 - away vs pot 2 team
Match Day 6 - 28 March 2009 - bye
Match Day 7 - 1 April 2009 - home vs first pot 4 team
Match Day 8 - 6 June 2009 - away vs second pot 4 team
Match Day 9 - 10 June 2009 - home vs pot 3 team
Match Day 10 - 17 June 2009 - home vs pot 2 team

The difficult period with two tough away games on Match Days 4 & 5 at least offers our European stars a lighter travel predicament mid-season. No jetting back to Australia with 36 hours recuperation. The two games are also nicely separated from one another by a period of three months. Even better, our run through June next year minimises travel (the first away match offers the potential of a pre-match camp just a short hop from Europe) and allows home support to become a major influence should the matches still be important for us to win (pretty darn likely).

Such are the virtues of being a top seed, I guess.

Ten Remain

Here are the ten AFC teams advancing to the final round of qualification for the World Cup, with current FIFA and Elo rankings in parentheses:

Australia (35 FIFA; 40 Elo)
Japan (38; 23)
Korea Republic (45; 43)
Iran (48; 29)
Saudi Arabia (54; 44)
Uzbekistan (58; 47)
Bahrain (72; 74)
Qatar (83; 76)
United Arab Emirates (95; 92)
Democratic People's Republic of Korea (118; 69)

From this, the task of qualifying looks simpler for Australia (on paper) if we draw at least two of Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and North Korea in our group of five while avoiding Japan.

During Round Three of qualifying, Bahrain defeated Japan and North Korea did not concede a single goal, so it seems to me that the most fortunate draw we could hope would include Qatar and the UAE in our group. That might mean difficult weather conditions for the away games, but it might be easier to deal with a bit of heat rather than one team that almost qualified for the last World Cup (Bahrain) and another that involves visiting one of the most reclusive nations on the planet (North Korea).

20 June 2008

Nice Surprises

One thing I love about the Verbeek era is the opportunity he has been happy to provide to younger players and established old hands who deserve a chance to bloom late. And we're not just talking about those players whose reputations precede them. While Verbeek seems to have time for the likes of Milligan, Sarkies, Nathan Burns, he's been far more generous with his selections to a range of other players:

  • throwing lifelines to Coyne, Vargas, Petkovic; Jedinak
  • thoroughly establishing 'potential guys' like Holman and Valeri in the squad
  • hauling into the spotlight starlets who not so long ago were quite secondary to the aforementioned group of young guns: Holland, Topor-Stanley, Musialik, Zadkovich, Spiranovic, Djite, and, above all, Troisi.

When you consider that we've still got Patafta, Vidosic, Leijer and other previously heralded guys coming through (and probably now having to make up a bit of ground on the others), the future of the national team seems to be in a fair state at the very least.

The experience being given to both the younger players and the older, wiser lot, suggests pretty careful risk management and multi-level goal-setting on the coaching staff's behalf. Yes, we've got to think about the World Cup qualifiers and the squad for the finals of the tournament if we make it that far, but we've also got to think about the logistics of friendly internationals (with our 'home' locations on either side of the planet), other important tournaments (the Asian Cup, the Olympics, various youth championships) and of course the long-term future.

I still think we're yet to find the next 20-something up-and-comer who waltzes into the squad and changes the composition of the starting team (ala Tim Cahill or Jason Culina in recent years, or even Scott Chipperfield, in a sense). But maybe 'find' is not the right word. We've probably already seen who the next big thing is but they're yet to establish themselves on a regular basis. Maybe it's McDonald. Or David Carney might just keep getting better. I don't know. But the squad seems about ready to accommodate a riser. I'm not sure it'll be an 18-year old. Historically our players don't seem to bloom until they're in their early-20s. Kewell was a massive exception. But who knows? It'd sure be a nice surprise.

13 June 2008

Measuring Success

The Asian Football Confederation's recent assessment of its member associations' professional leagues makes for interesting reading.

Each association has been graded across ten different areas to arrive at a score out of 500.

Unsurprisingly, Japan has the highest scoring association in Asia, with a score of 470.1 and the best score in every category except for the "technical standard" of its football (scoring 82.4 out of 100). Here, the Korea Republic triumphs (scoring 94.8).

Australia fares quite poorly in the assessment, scoring 306.0.

Compared with the top three (Japan, the Korea Republic and China), Australia is left behind in terms of its organisation, technical standard, governance/soundness, business scale and media. Business scale, especially, is a category where Australia loses out quite significantly in comparison to the big three in East Asia. Presumably this has something to do with the smaller size of our national population and the relatively tiny Australian diaspora, factors that restrict the potential amount of earnings from TV rights, sponsorship and merchandise. (On the other hand, match attendance is an assessment category in which Australia scores quite well.)

The low organisation score for Australia is a factor of the A-League's new beginning. With only eight teams in the league and no promotion and relegation structure in place, there is room to improve this score steadily over the coming years.

For Australia to score just 12.5 out of 50 in governance/soundness is rather provocative and suggestive of the level of esteem that our corporate structure is held within the Confederation. Only Singapore scores lower than Australia in this category, while Hong Kong, India, Uzbekistan, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria and Jordan all share an identical score.

A supporting document spells out the problem areas for Australia within the governance category. As listed below, most of the criteria are concerned with the absence of clear legal separation between the activities of the country's professional league (i.e. the A-League) and it's governing body (the FFA):

  • The league governing body must be a legal entity owned governed by its football association
  • The league governing body must have a management structure that controls competition, marketing, media and finance
  • The executive committee of the league must contain representatives from (a) the clubs, (b) the football association and (c) league management
  • The league CEO must be engaged full-time
  • The league must have an audited profit & loss statement and balance sheet
  • The league must have an auditor

The signal is quite clear: independence, transparency and accountability are very important to the AFC.

While it's hard to see how we can improve our business scale score, gains in our organisation and governance scores may provide the few extra points we need to obtain an extra team or two in the Asian Champions League and additional leverage in any other sense, presuming the AFC's assessment methodology becomes a standardised instrument for decision making.

But the gains in other categories could be doubled if we can improve the perception of Australian football's technical standard. Scoring just 51.3 out of 100 we are a long way behind our major competitors. To put the score in perspective, here's the hierarchy as it currently stands:

Korea Republic - 94.8
Japan - 82.4
Saudi Arabia - 78.8
Iran - 69.6
China - 61.5
Uzbekistan - 59.5
United Arab Emirates - 53.7
Australia - 51.3
Jordan - 51.2
Syria - 49.1
Qatar - 46.4
Bahrain - 46.4
Oman - 42.1
Singapore - 40.5
Kuwait - 34.6
Thailand - 33.0
Hong Kong - 30.9
Vietnam - 26.9
Indonesia - 24.4
India - 23.1
Malaysia - 19.4

It's both a little bit alarming and kind of hard to argue with. My only gripe: for all the AFC's ambitions to be more transparent, I haven't found any evidence of how these technical standard scores were arrived at. While they might seem 'about right', I have no idea what they're based on and it would be very interesting to be privy to any studies, statistics or whatever else went into their fabrication.

12 June 2008

More Physical, or About the Same?

What characteristic might best differentiate the A-League from other leagues around the world?

For three Queensland Roar trialists, the answer it seems is the league's emphasis on highly "physical" and energetic play.

Sergio van Dijk: "In Holland it's physical, but not as physical as here".

Marcio Carioca: "I've played a lot in the north of Brazil, and it's definitely more physical there than the rest of Brazil" (by way of asserting that he has the strength to cope with Australian defences).

Bruno Mezenga: "This is a very good chance for me to improve my strength by playing a game that's more physical and that has more power and more speed".

Australia just can't seem to escape this stereotype, be it at the local level, during international friendlies (thanks David Mitchell and Kevin Muscat) or at the World Cup.

Of course, the stereotype does contain an element of truth. Australian culture exhibits broad tolerance, even gleefulness, for thuggish behaviour in sports. Somewhat tragically, a bit of inelegant biffo usually goes down as well with audiences as any sublime moment of skill. Yet, there's also a touch of irony here. Historically, "soccer" in this country has been seen as the game for sheilas, wogs and poofters, to quote Johnny Warren. For us to be viewed internationally as a strong, rough and powerful proponent of the round ball game is strongly at odds with many perceptions at home.

As usual, the truth is probably a balance of the two perspectives. I think it's highly controversial to claim that the A-League is any more physically demanding than, say, the English Championship or the Scottish Premier League. But, the Australian manner of going about business in the sporting arena at home is clearly dissimilar to the way a group of multi-nationals will play together at a top club in Europe, where raw brawn is permitted for perhaps only one or two players with the rest of the team expected to demonstrate equivalent competence on the ball. (This is another way of saying that a rich club in Europe can achieve a better balance of equivalent abilities among team members across a season than a relatively poor club in Australia, where a greater range of skill levels might be observed on any one day.) I'm just not sure that cultural differences are the primary reason for different patterns of play globally. Surely latent and developed skill has something to do with it. If we in Australia play at a fast tempo and with quite a lot of rough and tumble, it's probably more a factor of a particular set of abilities (athleticism, strength, bravery) making up for shortfalls in other areas (technical understanding, creative flair, magnetic touch). That comes down to signatures at birth, habits, coaching and training, professional guidance, community acceptance and support for one's chosen endeavour, hard work, and so on.

These differences don't necessarily make individuals any more or less useful as footballers nor leagues any more or less physical than others at similar levels of average skill around the world. You can still have your leg horribly broken at the highest level or escape unscathed from any harm at all after a few decades in a prison league.

I do hope that we also manage to attract footballers from overseas who ignore all the nonsense about the physicality of our league and instead look forward to developing their skills and reputation at an accommodating mid-tier juncture in their careers.

11 June 2008

A Nice Combo

It's necessarily not a tremendously high profile move and if we're to believe reports not monetarily the best available either, but Nathan Burns $500,000+ transfer from Adelaide United to AEK Athens seems a pretty smart transaction all around.

Burns has been itching to get into a decent league in Europe and in the top flight of Greece he has definitely found one. AEK have Rivaldo on the books and will appear in the UEFA Cup next season. He may not start immediately but given time will surely push for first team selection on a regular basis.

Adelaide would have lost Burns for free had they not recently secured him on a new contract but with a get out clause. They may not have received as a transfer fee as great as they apparently did for Bruce Djite (some $850,000+), but together the pair has generated fairly significant income for the club.

AEK meanwhile gain the services of one of Australia's most promising forwards. He's in the modern form so admired by our Dutch national coaches, with excellent athletic attributes, a bit of creative talent, good vision and alertness with soft touch and well-weighted passing ability and he's able to score goals frequently.

If he can learn a thing or two from Rivaldo so much the better.

4 June 2008

New Look

I was getting a bit bored with the old template for the blog and have finally updated to one of the more dynamic templates on offer. Whether or not this encourages me to post more often I'm not yet sure . . . .

1 June 2008

Defensive Frailties

An old problem seems to have re-surfaced, with Australia's back two (and to a lesser extent the shielding men, Grella and Valeri) caught out of position on numerous occasions against Iraq. Beauchamp and North can count themselves fortunate that Australia survived to win the match 1-0, thanks largely to some poor shooting by Iraq and swift shot-stopping from Schwarzer.

If Neill remains unavailable for selection, I wonder what Verbeek will do to tweak things at the back before the away match in Qatar? If the bench is any indication, it seems Coyne and Vargas will have the first opportunity to take the place of one of the current stoppers. Beauchamp is probably the most come under scrutiny, given his lack of pace and North's better performances against China and Ghana.

Spiranovic might also find himself in the frame, given his solid, if unremarkable, appearance against the Black Stars.

Barring either of these options, Verbeek might pursue some intensive video and tactical one-on-ones with the current pair. The Iraqis have clearly worked hard on their combinations, runs from deep and through balls to pull opposition defenders into areas soon to be behind behind the play. Enormous concentration is required to keep tabs on wily drifting forwards while swift runners are cruising across the paddock in unpredictable ways, especially as the legs start to tire in the latter stages, but in peak condition both North and Beauchamp are capable of keeping the mental switches firing. Experience will make them better, and thankfully we've now gained a little breathing space in the group to continue persevering with a duo that hasn't set any hearts racing but which has pointedly kept the sheet clean.

In the longer term, though, the expectation is probably for one or two of the U-23 boys to step up. If they can post solid, dare I say spectacular, performances against Messi, Drogba, Aguero, and so on, Milligan and Leijer might be hard to ignore in the jostle for squad selection in the all-important next stage of World Cup qualification group matches.

21 May 2008

Coyne Joins Squad

Colchester and former Luton centre-half Chris Coyne has seized upon an invitation to train with the national team in the build-up to the match against Ghana.

Coyne was sold to Colchester for £350,000 during the season, having made a final appearance for Luton in a 1-1 FA Cup tie with Liverpool (Luton's goal coming courtesy of an John Arne Riise own goal, funnily enough). His signing couldn't save Colchester from the drop, however. With League One awaiting him next season, this current opportunity may represent the one and only chance Coyne gets to impress the national staff.

With our stocks a bit slim at the back, surely he's worth consideration. Conversely, if Matthew Spiranovic is ready to commence his national career, a turn to youth will be a more than welcome boost to our perennially aged backline.

20 May 2008

Wilkshire and McClaren Reunited?

While Luke Wilkshire's FC Twente have qualified for the Champions League next season they'll need a new manager to usher them through the tournament with current boss Fred Rutten heading to Schalke.

Steve McClaren has been mooted as the possible replacement.

Wilkshire has already served under McClaren's stewardship at Middlesbrough (as have Mark Schwarzer, Mark Viduka and Tony Vidmar, of course). I don't know if he'd be thrilled about a reunification with his old gaffer. For one, McClaren was happy to sell Wilkshire to Bristol City in 2003 having given him only a couple of dozen matches in all senior competitions to prove himself. (He's now played about the same number of matches for Australia, including a few in the World Cup.)

Wilkshire's career was probably stifled a bit in the lower English divisions. I wonder if his sometimes over zealous lunges (against Holland and Giovanni van Bronckhorst in particular in the warm-up match for the 2006 World Cup, for instance) emerged as a result of too much action in League One. (It could be more a case of 'big game' syndrome, though. Of his two red cards in English football, one came against Arsenal in a league match while playing for Middlesbrough. Wilkshire received two yellows, the second for a challenge on Robert Pires. The victim of the first? None other than van Bronckhorst.)

15 May 2008

Garcia or Carle Bound for the EPL

Either Richard Garcia or Nick Carle will feature in the English Premier League next season--so long as they remain with their current clubs--after both Garcia's Hull and Carle's Bristol City qualified for the Championship play-off final.

Garcia has already had a taste of the EPL a few years ago with West Ham and looks to be a possibility inclusion for national team duty in the near future. He scored and set up another goal in Hull's 4-1 home victory over Watford.

Meanwhile, Mile Sterjovski will of course find himself playing in the Championship next year following Derby's relegation. Adrian Leijer may have found more match time for Fulham had they gone down, but they managed to stay up so it will be interesting to see how his career progresses next year. Either he'll continue plugging away in the reserves, get loaned out, or have an opportunity to step up.

23 April 2008

Beijing Possibilities

First, Dean Bouzanis (or rather his agent) has finally suggested he will commit to Australia's Olympic campaign if selected for the climatisation camp in Malaysia.

He may have a tough fight on his hands for the starting job, though, with Velaphi and Federici also in the mix.

Second, Tarek Elrich reckons Harry Kewell would be keen to play in Beijing too, if asked. Kewell didn't get to play in Sydney in 2000 when he was eligible as an U-23 but injured, and neither was he selected as one of the three overage players for Athens in 2004.

If he's fit, I'm sure Arnold would be ready to oblige Kewell, but there's also the problem of his club status at the time Beijing kicks off. Coming off contract and likely to leave Liverpool, he may face a tricky situation with his new club, who will no doubt expect him to be available when the season begins. It's easy to imagine Kewell's next team compelling his non-attendance in Beijing, be it through an improved contract offer, internal disciplinary action, or what have you.

Mark Schwarzer and Brett Emerton are two other high profile national team members coming off contract at the end of June, clouding their availability if wanted (though neither probably is).

Meanwhile, Tim Cahill is injured, Mark Viduka is a very slim possibility indeed given his preference to maximise time away from national team duties. Jason Culina and Mark Bresciano could well be moving to new clubs over the northern summer, limiting the chances of their inclusion.

Then there's the case of potential overage players who are not necessarily first choice at their clubs: will they elect to fight for their place in the starting 11 at the dawn of a new season rather than cross the globe in August? Scott McDonald might find himself in that sort of quandry with Celtic boss Gordon Strachan clearly not a fan of his striker's travel requirements when representing Australia.

Yet, with the likes of Mascherano, Riquelme, Drogba and Toure lined up in opposing group teams, Australia's squad will undoubtedly require some bolstering.

So who will be chosen . . . and accept? Vinnie Grella? Josh Kennedy? Mile Sterjovski? Luke Wilkshire? Brett Holman? Or perhaps Nick Carle, whose selection might help seal the wound of being harshly overlooked for Athens?

22 April 2008

Pim Tells It Like It Is

I like this quote in regard to the sometimes difficult squad and team selection challenges that face the national manager:

I have 20 million people on my back wanting Australia to qualify for the next World Cup.

Damn straight.

But so far, although Pim's selections have raised a bit of controversy, he's more or less been proved 'correct'.

19 April 2008

Pim Assures Garcia

Hull City's right winger Richard Garcia has apparently received the nod of approval from Pim Verbeek and will be given every chance to attend the next national team training camp.

Hull currently lie in 2nd place in the Championship, with a very strong chance of promotion to the EPL next season.

Always good to see new talent in good form being given the opportunity to make an impression. I'm hopeful that someone like Garcia will probably make a stunning rise within the national set-up, pretty much in the same way Tim Cahill did during our last World Cup campaign. David Carney seems to have already made a mark, but I think there's room for one or two more bolters in the current sqaud.

10 April 2008

The Commitment Conundrum

Should Mark Viduka -- and others who have voiced a similar ploy (e.g. Mark Bresciano) -- be allowed to pick the games in which they represent their country?

The common consensus seems to resound 'no'. The players ought to commit to World Cup qualification and do everything in their power to fly out for matches on the other side of the planet a few days either side of appearances in their domestic leagues.

Under these terms, Viduka, it seems, is unwanted by the majority of the public fan base.

But what if we were to select a World Cup squad tomorrow and Viduka declared himself eligible? Would we want him to be picked for the team?

I think the answer might be different. We'd want to take our very best team into the tournament. Only a diabolical personality conflict or attitude problem would normally see a player unceremoniously barred from selection. Those issues are not relevant in Viduka's case. He simply wants to avoid material wear and tear on his body and no doubt is more comfortable being close to the comforts of home and his young family these days instead of running amok with some of the younger lads from the national squad. In my ethical universe, there's no sense of the nation's pride being held at stake here. It's a personal preference of a veteran player who has produced superlative performances in various youth and senior national teams for something like 15 years. Is it so difficult to show a bit of leniency? To offer a sort of long service reward?

I'm not sure I understand what all the fuss is about (though, I'm about as strict a nationalist as I am unopinionated). Viduka, when he chooses to play, will probably be needed. He'll pick his moments with as much knowledge as any of us, meaning that a friendly against Singapore is unlikely to attract his attention but a crunch qualifier with China might. If he turns up, I think many fans will be relieved. Even some of those pulling out the knives at the moment.

In the meantime, Pim Verbeek will have the opportunity to trial Viduka's successors in the arguably somewhat less meaningful and friendlies and less important qualifying matches (e.g. any games still to play after we've already qualified for Round 4). Without so much pressure on their performance, McDonald, Kennedy and the younger guns yet to make much of an impression will consider themselves fortunate: unlike Viduka's early days, when in every match he was expected to be Australia's cheeky backheeling hero or marauding striker menace, they'll be able to do no wrong. If they have a bad outing it'll probably be skipped over in the 'whatever, we've qualified or will soon, when Viduka comes back' news. If they score a brace, they'll be praised accordingly.

The situation does raise the question though: if Viduka gets his wish, who'll be next to ask for the same treatment?

29 March 2008

Steps to Qualification

Not everyone seems to realise that Australia's qualification campaign for the World Cup stretches beyond the current Round 3 group matches. (Or even that we're in Round 3 for qualification. As a top seeded team, Australia had a bye for the first two rounds.)

If we finish in the top two of the current group featuring China, Iraq and Qatar there's still Round 4--another eight home and away fixtures--to come.

Commencing in September this year, Round 4 involves two groups of five teams each battling it out for a place in the World Cup finals. Only the top two teams from each group directly qualify, while the third place teams play each other in a decider in October next year. Five teams in total go through to the finals in South Africa.

Although there's only been two games played in Round 3 so far, we can probably make some fairly safe predictions about the composition of the two Round 4 groups.

From Round 3 Group 1:
China PR
There's no real doubt that Australia will qualify, but the contest for the other spot will be tight. After Iraq's loss to Qatar, China must be slight favourites.

From Round 3 Group 2:
While Oman and Thailand might put a bit of pressure on these teams, they are both just too strong. The only question after Bahrain's recent home win over Japan is who will finish on top.

From Round 3 Group 3:
Korea Republic
Korea DPR
It'll be a fairly easy ride for the two Koreas. As the best of the third seeds in the groups Jordan are a handy team, but they've already lost at home to Korea DPR so their chances look bleak.

From Round 3 Group 4:
Saudi Arabia
These two are utter power houses against relative minnows in Singapore and Lebanon. Uzbekistan is a team on the rise with good firepower up front and definitely one to watch out for in the later stages.

From Round 3 Group 5:
United Arab Emirates
The other group of death. Iran have found themselves in very poor form at a bad time and have brought in Ali Daei as coach to help sort things out. It's hard to imagine them not making it through to the next stage. The U.A.E. on the other hand have put themselves on top courtesy of a strong win over Kuwait at home and a draw with Syria away. If Ismail Matar keeps scoring them should qualify, perhaps even ahead of Iran.

I have no idea how the Round 4 groups will be determined. It'll be tricky because of the odd number of teams in each group, meaning that one group will probably have three Round 3 group winners and the other just two. Higher seeded teams may also be preferentially allocated.

Purely to develop a hypothetical scenario I've undertaken a random draw, putting all the one Round 3 group winners in one hat and the runners-up in another, then simply alternately drawing one winner and one runner-up to take successive slots in each Round 4 group. I allowed teams from the same Round 3 group to be drawn together again. This is what I came up with:

Round 4 Group 1
Saudi Arabia
Korea Republic
Round 4 Group 2
United Arab Emirates
Korea DPR
Seems like wishful thinking to me!

26 March 2008

China 0 - 0 Australia

A respectable performance from Australia - playing under significant tournament pressure for the first time since the exit from the Asian Cup.

Archie Thompson's early injury pretty much forced the Socceroos into accepting a goalless draw. China also seemed content not to lose the match.

Credit to Pim Verbeek for selecting the right line-up considering the conditions. Going with a back three allowed him to pick both Beauchamp and North, who rewarded the manager with very good displays. North looked especially relaxed and although there were one or two moments where he was successfully beaten on the flank and crossed upon he was among the best on ground. Beauchamp was strong in the air and did enough on the ground to make sure he wasn't embarrassed by his his lack of pace.

Carney and Wilkshire on the flanks both had uneven matches but got forward when they could, chased back, and showed good control with some very direct and heavy passing from the centre. We never really threatened the byline or brought in any worthwhile crosses, but it seemed part of Verbeek's game plan to contain the perimeter rather than exploit it.

The defensive effort was pretty strong in the midfield as well. While Čulina had a pretty miserable game in an attacking sense, he worked hard to compress open space in the middle of the park and force China into long diagonal balls. These worked quite nicely for them at times, but probably not as well as short interchanges through the middle might have. Meanwhile, the presence of both Grella and Valeri in front of the back three was the match saving solution for Australia. They generally timed their challenges very well, worked the triangles and distributed in width and depth effectively enough to keep Chinese pressure away from the Australian 18-yard box.

Bresciano--what can you say? He's been hauled off in recent matches for Australia, be it due to tiredness or a tactical switch. Tonight he reaffirmed his importance to the team, staying on until the end and demonstrating that he can even serviceably hold up the ball while waiting for support up front in these times of desperation. He was pretty unlucky not to get a complete foot onto Holman's pass across the box early in the match, ending up with a bit of toe poke at the Chinese 'keeper.

Holman has drawn big wraps for his performance as Thompson's replacement and good on him. The amazing thing about his appearance is that he played in his usual slot about as high up the pitch as Bresciano and Čulina. In other words we didn't actually have a striker on the park for almost the entire game. China really needed to push an extra man out of defence if they were serious about winning the game, but given their present dire form you can understand why they didn't.

Schwarzer, thanks once again for an important penalty save. He created his own problem by not coming out for the challenge earlier, but perhaps Neill should have protected his number one a little better as well. It was a lousy penalty and Schwarzer sensibly kept his dive to a minimum. He was probably a tad fortunate that the spot kick was too soft to rebound off his shins and straight back out for a second pop, but it's that sort of luck you have to ride in order to get through to the World Cup finals.

Now that this saga is over there's time for management to reassess and plan for the forthcoming fixtures in June. We've learnt plenty on this trip and arguably come away with a pair of results that, although a little disappointing on paper, finally reflect some belated understanding and maturity concerning this new gig of ours as a representative of Asia.


The team has been announced. Archie will start up front and it seems Holman has been left on the bench, perhaps in order to have someone quick who can come on later in the game.

I'm off to the pub.

Update: Should have known better than to trust a Sydney newspaper speculating on a line-up when the only alternative to Bridge - a new Sydney FC signing - was a Melbourne Victory player! Heh.

Blow After Blow

With Kewell now apparently out of the match as well (not much of a surprise, really, though tremendously disappointing), Bridge has been mooted as the lone striker to face China.

It looks like we're now going to line up something like this:

----------------- Bridge
--- Bresciano ----------- Holman
---------------- Culina
--------- Grella ----- Valeri
Carney - Beauchamp - Neill - Wilkshire
--------------- Schwarzer

Or with North in for Beauchamp.

With China desperate to turn their campaign around, it looks like it's time for someone on either team to be a hero.

25 March 2008

Kewell Options

The introduction of Harry Kewell to the centre midfield in Singapore last night was a sign perhaps of things to come and not just a one-off tactic to give HK sufficient touches without too much sprinting before Wednesday.

We don't know enough yet about the nature of Pim Verbeek's relationships with Australia's star players, especially Kewell and Mark Viduka. But it's highly plausible that the big names hold a fair amount of sway in the negotiation over high-level strategic decisions, such as in which position to play for the national team and when to play at all. It's easy to imagine Kewell asking Verbeek to give him a run in the middle of the park, perhaps using the career lengthening adventures of Ryan Giggs as a point of comparison.

The forthcoming match against China should tell us more. Verbeek and/or Kewell may continue to exhibit the preference shown against Singapore. If Kewell does indeed play in central midfield, it might be an opportunity for Jason Čulina to venture further up the park. The last time I can recall Čulina playing in support of the forward line was just before the World Cup in the friendly against the Netherlands. I can't remember if he started in an attacking midfield position or just found himself plugged in there later in the game when Guus Hiddink demanded a more exaggerated pressing game. I do recall Čulina running himself absolutely silly, harassing and rushing the Dutch backline, not allowing them to settle on the ball.

For Australia and PSV Eindhoven, Čulina has rarely been given the chance to roam forward, whether on a wing or in the hole behind the strikers. Granted, he's not technically as gifted as Mark Bresciano, who can one-touch pass, cross, dribble and finish with more flair and distinction. Čulina, though, is extraordinarily fast, agile, fit and clever. He gets into excellent positions and has the vision and decision making to move the ball effectively. All these characteristics have served him excellently as a central midfielder. But if the Kewell experiment really is a serious one, and given the various exclusions of Tim Cahill, Mile Sterjovski, Nick Carle and Ryan Griffiths, Australia is going to need an alternative option among its forward three or four. Scott McDonald is probably favoured to start up front, which would leave Bresciano, Brett Holman and Archie Thompson as the only serious fellow starting options. I don't know about you, but that doesn't exactly inspire confidence. While we shouldn't forget that Bresciano and Holman scored last time we played China, if we throw Čulina into the mix things start to look a bit more promising. Assuming a five-man midfield with a back four and a lone striker:

Bresciano ---------- Čulina
------ Kewell - Wilkshire
---------- Grella

Should Kewell drop into central midfield, the other option that comes to mind is David Carney. If Wilkshire were to start at left wingback, there'd be sufficient cover for Carney to move up the left wing. This'd result in a three-pronged engine room that looks pretty tremendous:

Carney --------- Bresciano
---- Kewell - Čulina
--------- Grella

Any other combinations you fancy?

24 March 2008

Lone Man

Now that it has been confirmed that Scott McDonald will not play against China, it's almost certain that Pim Verbeek will employ a lone striker up front. Why? Because if he plays with a stiker pair, one of the two will almost certainly have to be Bruce Djite or Mark Bridge! That's assuming Harry Kewell does not play up front, but he might given that this particular limitation in our squad depth has allowed something of an emergency to develop.

With the FFA already confirming that nobody named John Aloisi, Joel Griffiths or James Brown (damnit) will be called up as a replacement, Archie Thompson is almost certain to start for Australia.

Brett Holman's chances have probably improved too.

Anyone miss the V-Bomber?

Oh well. I actually find this sort of pressure quite welcome. It's the World Cup after all.

Let's go.

(Just as an aside here, how indispensable does this make Bresciano look! With his goal creating and scoring ability, in my opinion he's far and away Australia's most important player at the moment.)

Singapore 0-0 Australia

Given the humidity, the soggy and clumpy pitch and the team's obvious lack of playing time together as a unit, the predominantly A-League-based national team performed passably in the rather flat and eventless 0-0 draw with Singapore, who, it should also be pointed out, played admirably.

The match wasn't a disaster. No truly awful mistakes were made to allow Singapore to score. No rash challenges ended in red cards or injuries to either team. No childish outbursts were witnessed. It was, in a mental and emotional sense, a pleasingly mature performance from Australia, but certainly one that lacked the precision and execution of the 3-0 victory over Qatar.

The Round Ball Analyst provides an instructive report card and match review.

Some insights surrounding Pim Verbeek's impression of the match are also available, since he selected seven (then later nine) participants in the game to join the full squad to travel to China for Wednesday's World Cup qualifying match in Kunming. It seems Verbeek was impressed with Adam Griffiths, perhaps with a view to his versatility across the backline and into midfield, while Bruce Djite also did enough in his short appearance as a substitute to convince the national coach of his firepower. However, among the additions, only Jade North and Archie Thompson are likely to see game time.

Verbeek also showed his squad tactics a bit with the previously announced squad players he decided to leave out. Perhaps thinking that its better all round for the unlikely to play European-based players to be sent back home (rather than sit on the bench, potentially disgrunted) and for the A-Leaguers to build some squad experience (i.e. with no intention of having them enter the fray), James Troisi (one of our best against Singapore), Adam Federici, Nick Carle and Jacob Burns were all uninvited.

19 March 2008

National Team Captain?

Since it seems that a long term decision still has not been made (pardon me if this is incorrect), and given a full strength squad, who should captain Australia should it qualify for the World Cup in 2010?

Let's look at the candidates:

Lucas Neill - vocal about how much he wants it and great with the mainstream media, but does he have the on field respect of comrades and foes?

Mark Viduka - question marks over his international career continuing, but proved a good choice last time

Vincenzo Grella - possibly, along with Viduka, the smartest football brain we have, but more of a laconic charmer than an acerbic wit with the scribes

Brett Emerton - has pretty much locked in a spot in the 11 for years to come and took the U-23s through the 2000 Olympics . . . but perhaps that's why he's never really been discussed as a serious contender

Mark Schwarzer - there are probably too many alternative options on the pitch to give the armband to the man between the posts

Harry Kewell - it worked for Viduka last time, so would making our left-footed wonder the top dog improve his performance, physically, mentally and emotionally? If so I think many of us would love to see the results . . . but what the heck would the team, fans and media make of the decision?

Tim Cahill - would be a popular choice, I think, but from out of nowhere - plus, would it ruin his game, given that he loves getting in amongst it with the referee and opposition (without any responsibility attached, aside from not getting himself sent off)?

Pim Verbeek seems to be in a similar situation to Fabio Capello with England a while ago. Like Capello he'll probably bide his time and wait until he's convinced with his decision, which probably means it won't be a major surprise. Neill must be the favourite, but if Viduka chimes in with a resounding "Hell, yeah, I'll play in the next World Cup" then it could get interesting.

16 March 2008

World Cup Squad 2010 - An Early Prediction

So far Pim Verbeek has run his calculator eyes over a swag of players young and old, but come crunch time he's selected the tried and true. Should we expect anything different when the time arrives to select the 23 players for the World Cup squad - assuming Australia qualifies?

For Germany 2006, surprise call-ups from Guus Hiddink went to Milligan and Beauchamp, while Covic could also count himself fortunate to be in the manager's mind at the right time.

Like his former mentor, Verbeek appears to be another surprise puller in spirit (or concession bender, if we interpret Hiddink's selection of a few candidates for the bench as a gesture of respect to the local football fraternity - let's remember his comments about Sarkies too, whom he declared squad material after he belatedly saw him in training). Might he be keeping something up his sleeve, like a poker player already thinking ahead to a 6am fleecing of the table at the beginning of a tough night's play?

Bearing these thoughts in mind, here's my wild and woolly prediction for Verbeek's squad in 2010.


Schwarzer - no realistic competition
Federici/Coe/Van Strattan - one of these guys ought to start making a longer lasting impression soon
Bouzanis - the wonderkid, assuming he doesn't pledge his future to Greece


Neill - let's hope he stays healthy - without him we won't have sufficient experience at the back
Spiranovic - given his technical quality, stepping up should be a breeze - ought to be the major addition to the NT over the next two years
Milligan - still very talented, but must eliminate the lapses
Leijer - with Beauchamp treading water in Germany, may get an opportunity, but will need to seize it when it comes
Kisnorbo - his versatility increases his chances for a tournament appearance


Cahill - finally starting to take the focus away from Kewell, Viduka and Bresh
Bresciano - deserves to have a better WC than in 2006
Grella - the only worry might be a Moore-like loss of physical speed to go with the mental speed as gets on
Emerton - can he stick around for 2014?
Culina - will Pim release him forward a bit more often?
Valeri - becoming an increasingly seamless deputy anchor
Carney - Chippy unlikely to go the distance
Wilkshire/Carle - hmm, the dependable or the unpredictable?
Holland/Herd/Zullo - selected for the experience


Viduka - what retirement? (Lucas will be captain, though, with Emo a dark horse.)
Kewell - used up front or off the bench, ala Guus
Kennedy - nobody can replace Viduka, but so far seems capable of performing as a target man as well as Crouch-like on the deck
McDonald - problem is he needs to keep scoring to remain in the frame, since that's his game
Troisi - already a Pim favourite but may find first team opportunities hard at Newcastle for some time yet
N. Burns - seems patient with success but must be due to move overseas shortly and it's hard to believe he won't have an impact wherever he goes

No place for Holman (Wilkshire is more versatile and Carle has creative flair), D. Williams (McDonald is the pure finisher), A. Elrich (Herd might be a better long term prospect down the right, and Elrich doesn't like to lie deep). Sterjovski deserves a place but could just as easily see himself sacrificed for a young gun.

15 March 2008

The Forgotten Ones

While a fairly large number of players have already been selected for various camps and with more than a few surprises among them, there's still a large contingent of players that remain on the fringe and persistently overlooked. Here's a few.

Michael Petkovic - perhaps the goal he scored from his own box recently will call attention to his contribution to Sivasspor's tilt at the domestic title, a run that seems to be based on a miserly defence, including perhaps between the sticks? (Any Turkcell Super League followers keeping track?)

Michael Theoklitos - still has a little bit of time to nurture an international career, but it might be crunch time now: will the Vukovic ban and ACL action lead to a chance or will even younger 'keepers (Federici, Velaphi, Coe, Van Strattan) be fast tracked?

Dean Bouzanis - intent on playing for Greece or just getting some valuable international experience at youth level, closer to home and without strings attached? No selector should have to worry about this sort of thing, yet here we are. Again. Cap him in the dying seconds of a meaningless friendly, have a bit of a laugh with the press and let's all move on.

Matthew Spiranovic - see above, except with more vindication. Come on, the kid was often playing ahead of Beauchamp when both players were actually in contention for a game last season. Why draw out the inevitable - give him a trot in the 93rd minute next time we play in Europe and we can all rest easier knowing that a potential 100-capper is shored up for the future. (Anyone else think super-fit Emerton might just make it to 100 appearances?)

Chris Coyne & Adrian Madaschi - North (currently 2nd choice behind Neill?!), Beauchamp, Kisnorbo and Thwaite all add up to about one Craig Moore in his prime, so perhaps its prudent to investigate all of our short- and medium-term centre half options. Maybe a fit David Tarka will be worth a look as well.

Ahmad Elrich - sure, it's true that leaving aside one spectacular goal he didn't achieve much last season, but we shouldn't forget that he injured himself on international duty ala Milicevic, and look how bitterness with 'the system' ruined his career! The elder Elrich bro is still one of the very few players to have emerged from the youth set-up since the previous Olympics with evidence that he can make the transition to the Socceroo elite.

Richard Garcia - bit surprised we've not recently had a longer look at a guy who's a consistent scorer from the right and could potentially be involved in the EPL next season. More, probably, than can be said for Mile Sterjovski. (Okay that was a cheap shot. Come on Sterj!)

Labinot Haliti - just kidding.


Okay, so it's a change of focus for me as I veer away from the A-League, which is now incredibly well-supported in the blogosphere (see links at right, and please send me others you think should be added to the list). It's been a great pleasure observing the fan-produced content surrounding the league grow exponentially since 2005's inaugural season kickoff.

The focus of the site is going to shift to the national team. For two reasons: it's the larger obsession and it's easier to track sweeping movements in the international arena than it is to follow the minutiae of the league. That's why pretty much every post from here on is going to short and straight to the point - simply a comment or two based on the latest cursory reading of some pundit or whatever other fleeting impression crossing my mind. There'll be less to read but hopefully enough to ponder.

Without further ado . . . .