Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Socceroos bound for Rio despite managerial misgivings

After cutting it far too fine for comfort, the Socceroos can finally begin to prepare for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. An eighty-third minute headed goal from Joshua Kennedy sealed a 1-0 victory against old rivals Iraq and progression from the final round of Asian Qualifying. While the display against essentially a second-string side was hardly awe-inspiring, it was enough and the antipodeans now take their place alongside Japan, South Korea and Iran as AFC representatives at the Big Dance.

Uzbekistan and Jordan will compete in a two-legged playoff in early September for the final available Asian qualifying position. Whichever squad that makes it to Brazil will certainly prove a fillip to their nation, but may not impact the makeup of the second round: of the Asian clubs bound for Rio, has Japan the shortest of the long-odds at 126:1.

While it's taken nearly three years, Australia coach Holger Osieck seems to have finally hit upon the best makeup for his side.  Over his tenure, Osieck has dithered through an extensive playing roster without ever tipping his hand towards pragmatism (and continued appearances by the likes of Sasa Ognenovski and Alex Brosque) or an attempt at an exciting future featuring Tomas Rogic, Tommy Oar and Robbie Kruse. This has hurt the team, as players both young and old never seem to know whether they had roles to play in attaining a World Cup berth. Had the Socceroos not won last night, this lack of clear vision - and a penchant for sexist jokes - would have thrust the German onto perilously thin ice.

The lineups deployed in these past two crucial qualifiers suggest Osieck believes - as do the majority of the Green and Gold Army - that success lies not in wholesale youth or experience, but somewhere firmly betwixt. The crucial players in Tuesday evening's win were Oar, Rogic and resurrected thirtysomethings Ognenovski, Neill, Kennedy and Mark Bresciano. Had the Socceroos been without Al-Gharafa's Bresciano over the past six months, they would be - at best - face a nerve-racking playoff to cement next summer's Samba Tour.

After two years of curious selections, it may be that Osieck has happened luckily upon his best lineup at the critical time.  The alternate viewpoint states that Australia's mixed results are a function of rarely having an entire squad available due to the travel involved in representing Australia.

Educated onlookers favour the former, especially based on the teams Osieck selected during turgid losses to Jordan and a draw with Oman: the Socceroos relied too heavily upon a square, lateral gameplan that lacked in fluidity and impetus. The re-emergence of Oar and the boost Rogic and Kruse obtained from transfers has thrust a more joyful approach upon the men in gold, resulting in a 4-0 thumping of Jordan (the nation's biggest win in a match that mattered since their 6-0 thrashing of Uzbekistan in the 2011 Asian Cup) and now, ultimately, acceptance not just as the Socceroos' future, but also their present.

To paraphrase Napoleon: it's better to be lucky than good, and Osieck appears to have stumbled upon his most fruitful combination.

Despite the pressure of expectation, Osieck has recently displayed a happy recognition of when to make the correct substitutions at the most important moments. Last night, he got it right again - removing Australia's most effective forwards this decade (Tim Cahill and Brett Holman) and inserting forgotten man Kennedy - a man built to dominate Asian football - who scored only minutes after arriving on the pitch for the 'Roos for the first time since 2011

That he has finally, finally, seemingly integrated the talented youth into the cadre of hard-bitten vets and finally exemplified his once-vaunted game-management skills, the future looks brighter for Australian football than it did only a fortnight ago.

With the pressure now off and Australia hoping for an improvement from Pim Verbeek's ill-begotten 2010 World Cup.

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