Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Seven circles, seven horn blasts, final score 3-2

Australia vs USA, Saturday 5th June
(written Monday 7/6/2010)

Saturday's Australia/USA tussle was the last hit out for both teams before the Big Dance begins on Friday. The US will play England in possibly the most over-hyped group stage match in World Cup history; the Australians take on Germany. Many fans and pundits were slightly surprise by the 3-2 scoreline given both sides recent lack of goalscoring pop, but it must be said the better side on the day were victorious.

Why did the Aussies come up short? The loss can be put down to failings in the three most important areas of the game – offence, defence & in Jedi Mind Tricks. Offensively the Socceroos failed to make use of that which is their strength, while defensively they shopped three goals to strikers who – and let's be fair – aren't exactly world class. Showing all the mental resilience of a teething six-month old, they came awfully close to losing their bottle subsequently we all glimpsed their cynical side.

That's not to say there weren't positives. The Socceroos showed good creativity from both flanks. Wilkshire was as steady as ever on the right, while Scott Chipperfield could have been Australia's player of the match from the left fullback slot. Tim Cahill was up and about in the 45 minutes he played and Josh Kennedy had his moments. Plenty of creativity either sat or didn't play: neither Brett Emerton nor Harry Kewell played at all and Brett Holman played only 20 minutes. The Australians weren't outclassed athletically and probably won the physical battle, though even this positive comes with a caveat.

Unfortunately the negatives outweighed the positives. The midfield failed to fire: while Culina was good, Vince Grella had an absolute Barry Crocker*, gifting the ball to the opposition regularly and in indefensible positions. We can fully expect Bresciano to bounce back after also lowering his colours slightly. The centre backs were reasonable in patches, but were found out not so much for pace as had been the fear before the match, but for lateral movement. The small, mobile forward pair of Buddle & Findlay didn't so much burn Moore & Neill outright for pace but on the turn. Moore in particular has a turning circle that makes Aretha Franklin look agile. Australia thrived in the physicality stakes except in the striker position. Josh Kennedy is great taking a run-up to the ball in the air, but markedly less comfortable holding defenders at bay and involving the wings. He may be effective as a starter in Asian competition against smaller opponents but against a burly CB like Jay DeMerit his best role may be that of impact sub. This then leaves a selection dilemma as Verbeek's striking options are severely limited.

Mentally, it seems Australia takes on the personality of their coach and this is evident in the attitudes and performances of his players. I'm not calling Bob Bradley a Sith Lord, but you don't need to be Obi-Wan to see that Yoda pulled the strings in 2006 while this year our coach has the mental stability of a hormonal teenage Anakin Skywalker. At the last World Cup, everything Guus Hiddink said instilled a calm confidence in the team and in the fans. Verbeek has railed against the training facilities, the A-League and Gordon Strachan in the last two weeks, resulting in Australia looking harried and a little chippy. The Socceroos are one of the most aggressive sides in World football but must not become a team of bullies as they did last month against New Zealand. They must focus on winning each individual contest while maintaining one eye on the bigger picture – scoring more than the other team.

A spirited defeat against a team better on the day. Several players below-par but enough positives for hope. Not the best preparation for a World Cup campaign. Australia's immediate future depends on whether they've learned as much about themselves as we have.

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