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 . . . .