Thursday, February 23, 2006

Positive first foray into Asia

Asian Cup Qualifier, Bahrain 1 v Socceroos 3

So what lessons do we take out of our first adventure into Asia, a strong come from behind 3-1 victory away to Bahrain in this morning’s (Australian time) Asian Cup qualifier in Manama?

Firstly, it was a fantastic show of character from a team that has only been together for the past couple of days. Many of the boys had to be introduced for the first time in camp.

Considering that the starting 11 featured no starters from the side that took on Uruguay in Sydney last November and that three of the 11, goalkeeper Ante Covic, defender Michael Beauchamp and striker Scott McDonald were making their debuts, this was an excellent result and a good sign for the future of our national team.

Our move into Asia has promised a lot, but what this game delivered was an opportunity to blood some youngster and fringe players into the team for a meaningful qualifier, giving them the necessary experience in a pressure situation and our coaching staff an opportunity to see how they handle it.

Lets face it, had we lost this opening qualifier, it wouldn’t have been an insurmountable position to finish top two in a group also featuring Kuwait and Lebanon, but it would have placed pressure on the coaching staff, whoever will be in charge, come the next qualifier at home to Kuwait in August.

On the back of the Under 17s being eliminated from their Asian qualifiers a couple of weeks ago, a loss this morning would also have thrown up questions about whether we were taking our sojourn into Asia seriously enough given the short length of preparation both teams had.

Add the fact that for many of the players this was possibly a final opportunity to impress the powers that be ahead of the World Cup, and there was a fair deal riding on this match.

At half time, the signs weren’t looking good. Down 1-0 and with Bahrain asking most of the questions, the players looked nervous and tentative and co-assistants Graham Arnold and Johan Neeskens were being outsmarted by Luka Peruzovic on the Bahrain bench.

After a promising opening 15minutes for Socceroos, Bahrain started to take control, with striker Hussain Ali proving a constant menace on his own up front, but he was ably supported from behind by attacking midfielders Mohammed Salmeen, the captain, and Hossan Maki.

Bahrain were playing a 4-5-1 formation and outnumbering the Socceroos in midfield, giving no space to the likes of skipper Josip Skoko and Luke Wilkshire. They defended fairly deep, never allowing the likes of Archie Thompson, Ahmad Elrich and McDonald in behind, where they were reported to be slow.

‘The Reds’, as they are known, also played a calculated counter-attack, with their goal coming from one such raid where the left fullback Salman Isa got in behind Jade North thanks to a wonderful one-two with Maki, his cross neatly tucked away by Ali at the near post.

Again the Socceroos were opened up down the right as Isa forced a save from Covic just before the break. Australia went to the break without a shot at goal and having being forced by Bahrain to resort to long balls by its flooding on the midfield.

But Arnold and Neeskens showed the awareness and flexibility that have become hallmarks of the Guus Hiddink era when they made a key tactical adjustment at the break, going from a 3-4-3 to a 4-3-3.

For months Hiddink has been preaching the mantra of having only one spare at the back, but with Ali on his own up front for Bahrain, there was no need for three central defenders, so Michael Thwaites, who looked short of match practice, was sacrificed, with both North and Alvin Ceccoli dropping back into a more familiar back four, systems they and Beauchamp play at their respective A-League clubs.

Brett Holman was introduced in the half-half role between midfield and attack, which would help the two central midfielders as well as taking some of the pressure off McDonald, who was battered in the first half by the two central defenders Mohammed Hussain and Said Adnan.

The move also allowed Thompson and Elrich to get wide and pin back their respective fullbacks, Abdullah Marzooq and Isa. Suddenly the Socceroos looked more in-synch and soon had Skoko on the ball, controlling the tempo of the game.

Holman, on debut, made a telling difference driving at the Bahrain defence, and with the experienced trio of Skoko, Elrich and Thompson now in the game, it was a matter of time before the goals came. Tellingly, all three, who are on the fringes of Hiddink’s first 11, got on the scoresheet and played key roles in the goals.

Of the debutants and those on the fringes, Beauchamp and Ceccoli did their futures no harm with solid displays at the back, while North, Thwaites and McDonald will be a little disappointed not to have made more of an impression.

Player ratings

Ante Covic (6.5); looked nervous early on with a fumble after a couple of minutes, not at fault for the Bahrain goal but may have been more assertive in barking at Jon McKain to be tighter on Ali. Made a good save at the end of the first half from Isa to keep it 1-0 at the break. Not enough to put pressure on Schwarzer and Kalac.

Michael Thwaites (5); looked rusty and short of a gallop, fair enough considering he’s been frozen out in Romania. After a smashing debut against Jamaica last year, which at one stage looked likely to give him a play off birth against Uruguay, will be disappointed to have dropped a couple of spots in the pecking order.

Jon McKain (6.5); wasn’t tight enough on Ali for the goal, didn’t look comfortable at the back of the back three in the first half, resorting to pumping long balls, but settled alongside Beauchamp for the second period in a back four.

Michael Beauchamp (7.5); was troubled a couple of times early by Ali, but got more comfortable as the match went on, his strengths of tight marking, good coverage on the ground and aerial ability all on display. Very accomplished debut and with so many problems at the back to our senior players, now comes into calculations for the World Cup squad.

Jade North (6); failed to grasp his opportunity as Bahrain got in behind him on the right on a number of occasions in the first period and early in the second. Looked more comfortable in the back four in the second half, a more natural position.

Josip Skoko (8); outnumbered in the first half but looked rusty as he gave up the ball too often, but once the numbers issue was addressed at the break he was back to his best, controlling the game with his simple distribution. Also played a hand in all three goals, scoring a trademark gem from outside the box and taking the free kicks that set up the other two.

Luke Wilkshire (6.5); looked lost in the first half but got into the game more in the second with his high work-rate complementing Skoko’s distribution and Holman’s drive.

Alvin Ceccoli (7); was solid throughout, never allowing right midfielder Mohmmad Hubail in behind him. Like North, looked more comfortable in the back four. His strength is the tightness of his defending, although a couple of times he gave the ball away coming forward.

Ahmad Elrich (7); like the others who haven’t played regularly lately, he looked in need of a run. Was too narrow in the first half, had nowhere to go, but got better in the second period when he opened up, getting around Isa a couple of times. Good composure at the penalty spot for the final goal.

Scott McDonald (6); worked hard throughout but had the physical central defenders on his back in the first period. Had more space in the second half when Holman was closer but missed a couple of decent opportunities.

Archie Thompson (7.5); peripheral in the first period, was a handful in the second, getting the ball out wide and taking on Abdullah Marzooq. Great header for the opener, then he teed up Skoko for the second with some nimble footwork, telling contributions.

Reserves, Brett Holman (7); excellent debut, filling a crucial hole in the area between midfield and attack. Looked like he played the managers’ instructions to a tee and was a constant menace driving at the Bahrain defence.

David Carney (5); not enough time for the Sydney FC flanker to impress on debut, but he looked comfortable and composed the couple of times he did get the ball.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Gosford Harry said...

Agree that Jade North was very disappointing. So was McDonald but it was tough for him against those monster defenders. I have to say I expected them to lose with so many of the stars not playing and so many of these boys not playing for their clubs. WELL DONE SOCCEROOS and well done Michael Beauchamp.

Fri. Feb. 24, 02:25:00 pm AEDT  
Anonymous Ray said...

Great insite into how the move at half time altered the flow of the match, thanks, but one question - do you think Michael Thwaites now has no hope of making the World Cup?

Fri. Feb. 24, 05:34:00 pm AEDT  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Thanks Ray....

For me Michael Thwaites still has time but he really needs to find regular football. No doubt he has dropped a bit in the pecking order, not just for his rusty first half performance against Bahrain on Thursday morning, but because he has not been playing regularly with his Romanian club. After his impressive performance against Jamaica last year he was right up there in the pecking order, especially with the likes of Moore and Popovic not playing regularly. Against Bahrain we saw the value of playing regularly, with Michael Beauchamp staking his claim for the World Cup. Its unfortunate for Thwaites, because he looked a class act against Jamaica, but if he can somehow get some game time between now and the World Cup, his hopes aren't totally over. I hope he is able to get some regular football as we really need Thwaites keeping pressure on the likes of Vidmar, Neill, Moore and Popovic before the Cup.

Sat. Feb. 25, 01:32:00 pm AEDT  

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