Sunday, June 25, 2006

World Cup Post #10

Round of 16, Socceroos vs Italy preview - Kaiserslautern II calls for a big performance from the big man
Tony Tannous in Stuttgart

THIS world cup has already been magnificent, successful and beyond belief for Australia, but if the Socceroos are to continue their fairytale ride – and there is no reason why they can’t - against Italy tomorrow (German time), then it’s time for the big man, Mark Viduka, to stand up.

While others have been basking in the glory of hitting the back of the net, the likes of Cahill, Kewell, Moore and Aloisi, one name has been absent, that of the skipper. That’s not to say the big man has been playing poorly, quite the contrary. Against Japan and even Brazil he was a constant menace to the likes of Kakazawa, Miyamoto, Tsuboi, Lucio and Juan, toying, turning, teasing and prompting, but never finishing.

Everyone you spoke to after these games - Japanese, Brazilians, Germans and Mexicans - spoke in glowing terms about the big man with impeccable technique and strength, but few mentioned his potency in front of goals.

The Croatia game wasn’t his best, perhaps burdened by his early error in giving the ball away and compounding it by fouling Niko Kovac on the edge of the box, leading to Srna’s peach. Later he uncharactersitically left the ball under his feet when he appeared clean through.

Viduka is a confidence player. If he’s scoring goals he’s on top of the world, explosive and decisive. If he’s not scoring, he appears to second-guess himself.

Perhaps losing the job of chief penalty taker hasn’t helped his state of mind. Also not helping was referee Markus Merk against Brazil, who penalised Viduka a few times when it appeared he was the one being fouled. Again, early on against Croatia, he had what appeared a legitimate penalty claim turned down.

Right now, it would be hard for Viduka not to feel the world has conspired against him.

Hiddink will probably identify this and look to build Viduka’s confidence ahead of this clash, reminding him of his quality, for the V-Bomber is crucial if the Socceroos are to deal with Italy’s noted defence.

Viduka has the strength and technique to get in amongst central duo Cannavaro and Materazzi (Nesta has been ruled out injured) and cause them a few headaches, but he will need to be at the top of his game.

Much has been made of his poor scoring ratio for the Socceroos, not always fair given his contribution these days is as much to create as to finish, both for club and country.

His former manager at Leeds, David O’Leary, is largely credited with turning Viduka into more of a playmaker than a finisher, which he was in his early days at Melbourne Knights, when the V-Bomber nickname emerged.

In any case, Viduka will erase all these question marks if he can get a crucial one against a team that has been effective without ever being totally impressive.

The Azzuri play a narrow game which is why teams find it so difficult to break them down. The have a narrow midfield quartet which provide the shield in front of the back four, with Pirlo the deepest, flanked by workhorses like Gattuso, Perrotta and Cameronesi. When they attack from wide areas it is normally through the overlapping Zambrotta.

The Italians try and play a mistake free game, which they did so effectively against the Czechs, when it mattered most. They absorbed whatever the Czechs threw at them in the opening half hour and then pounced, scoring from a set piece. In the second half, with the Czechs reduced to 10 men, they opened up more and killed the game.

But they showed signs against the physical and quick Ghana and USA that they can be suspect to pace and power. Ghana tested them through the middle, while the USA were effective down the right, exploiting the space left by Italy’s narrow midfield. But neither Ghana nor the USA were able to overpower Italy - they invariably find a way to adjust and deal with whatever is thrown at them.

The Socceroos will do well to continue playing as they have, being purposeful and driving from midfield through the likes of Bresciano, Cahill, Chipperfield and Kewell. This is where Australia might miss Emerton, who has been terrific in the past two games at adding an extra number in midfield, driving from deep.

What Hiddink does will be fascinating. He could use the adaptable Culina, who has already played in four or five different roles in this campaign (left wingback against Japan, an advanced right midfielder against Brazil, almost marking Roberto Carlos, holding midfielder against Croatia alongside Grella and left back after the Socceroos scored their second equaliser).

If Hiddink uses a three man defence, then Culina might shape up on the right, perhaps going head to head with a Gattuso or Perrotta, with Sterjovski further up the pitch, putting pressure on Italy’s left back, whether it’s Zambrotta or Grosso (Zambrotta has already played either side).

If Zambrotta does start on the right, as he did against the Czechs, then Kewell, if his groin is right, might be used to pin him back, stop him from venturing forward. Grella will be crucial in denying Totti any counter-attacking space.

Whatever traspires, it is sure to be a fascinating tactical battle, two masters in Lippi and Hiddink playing chess on the ultimate stage. Perhaps Hiddink has another surprise in stall, possibly more time for the likes of Aloisi, Kennedy or Skoko, particularly as it will be Australia’s third game in eight days.

The Italians are masters at inviting teams forward and then countering with a sucker-punch, so the Socceroos will need to be mindful or not leaving too much space when they attack. Whoever Lippi goes with - Gilardino, Toni, Totti, Del Piero or Iaquinta - will be waiting to use any space if Australia commit too many men forward. Defensive discipline is crucial.

Easy to see how this can become a game of cat and mouse.

Australia will also need better delivery from set pieces and out wide, an area that has been a obvious deficiency in the group stages. Italy are supremely organised at defending set pieces, so Bresciano will be crucial if he starts. Chipperfield also needs to improve this part of his game.

At the other end, Australia will need to be vigilant defending set pieces, a traditional avenue for Italy, a lesson the Czechs learnt.

The Italians have a way of sneaking through games like this one, regardless of how they’re playing, and after being knocked out by Hiddink’s Koreans at the same stage four years ago, you sense they’ll have their minds on the job.

The question for Australia is whether the big man up front has his mind on the job and can finally get on the scoresheet in Germany. The Socceroos are undisputedly underdogs, a position the team will find comfort in, but privately they will hoping to summon the same spirit and determiniation that has got them this far, and take another major scalp.

Just how satisfied they are with what they’ve achieved to date we’re about to find out. A nation can hardly wait for Kaiserslautern II.


Anonymous pinuts pethia said...

We was robbed. There is almost a sense of expectation that teams with world cup pedigree are expected to get through such close games.

Hope the Italians get pumped by the germans. Ciao from Santorini.

Wed. Jul. 05, 02:02:00 am AEST  

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