It’s the Socceroos, but not as we knew 'em
THIRTY-two years we’ve waited for a World Cup farewell party. If this is what they’re like, lets have one every four years.
As far as an exercise in preparing the Socceroos for the serious stuff which starts in just less than three weeks, this was just about as good as it gets. A 1-0 victory that sends the team on its overseas adventure in great spirits, sends a strong message to the world that the Socceroos aren’t going to the fiesta to simply make up the numbers and reassures the manager, Guus Hiddink, that his message is sinking in, even beyond the first 11
And just as importantly, perhaps more so, no new injury concerns.
Yes there will be pockets of Greek fans from Melbourne to Mykinos a little disappointed with their side’s contribution to this match, but for Australia, making an impression in Germany is now within reach.
Make no mistake, this was, along with the Sydney display against Uruguay in November, among the most controlled and complete Socceroos performances this correspondent can remember.
To see an Australian side so in control of their opponents, as they were last night, as they were last November, is simply too good to be true. Since Hiddink hit our shores midway through last year he has preached the mantras of flexibility and adaptability, and here they were, all on display.
Even in the build up to this match much was said about Hiddink’s ability to tailor his team’s formation to suit whatever the opponent is doing, and here Australia shifted to a fluent 3-4-3 formation as soon as it was apparent Greece were playing with two strikers.
Much was also said about the absences of three top line attackers, Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and John Aloisi, but this performance proved what Hiddink has said all along, that the team is more important than any one, two or three individuals. The show must go on.
Socceroo teams of the past have all played with genuine purpose, belief and passion, but never with this amount of calm, control and thought. Everything is in sync, everything has a purpose, and while the Europe Champions threatened to equalise with a couple of half chances in the second period, the Socceroos rarely looked under duress.
As skipper Mark Viduka said to the packed MCG house shortly after Mike Reily’s final whistle; “We keep the ball very well, we don’t panic. We play like all the other big teams around the world. It’s a tribute to him.”
‘Him’ being Hiddink, of course.
But it is also a tribute to this generation of Socceroos. Empowered by their experiences throughout Europe, they have been quick to recognise their amazing fortune of being able to share a few fleeting months with this worldly practitioner, seizing on his tactical acumen and applying themselves to the cause.
It is a tribute to their learning powers that they have been able to soak up everything he has drilled into them, playing with the intelligence and technique that the likes of Johnny Warren have long campaigned for.
He told us so, and he was right.
The only pity is that he wasn’t at the MCG last night to exorcise the Iran demons of almost nine years ago when he wept openly at yet another missed opportunity.
If he was watching from above, he would have seen a fluid Socceroos unit, playing the type of keep ball possession, full of movement, purpose and pace, we have come to associate with other, more powerful, football nations.
Yes, there are still things to work on, such as the final ball and killing off a game when you are in control, but for now the signs are encouraging. Hiddink will play it down a touch, and he is right to. After the game he emphasised one key word, ‘consistency’, and there is little doubt he will be seeking it in the build up to next week’s Dutch friendly, which will be another challenge for these players.
Controlling games at home is one thing, controlling them abroad – and regularly – is a different matter all together.
But for now Australia can rejoice in finally having a football team that can compete on the world stage, not only physically, but where it is most often decided, in the mind.
The beauty is this generation of players now has the opportunity to showcase their collective talents and spirit on biggest stage of all, and, on this showing, who would bet against them making an impression.
The Greeks would certainly think so after last night. And privately even Hiddink would be amazed at how far this unit of players has come in such a short period under his tutelage.
Whatever happens to the Socceroos in Germany, we can only hope that in 12 years time, and hopefully with a couple more World Cup farewell parties behind us, this period is remembered as the awakening of Australia as a competitive player on the world stage.
Players Report Card
Zeljko Kalac, 6; after so long as the second string keeper he finally got his chance, but on the few occasion he was involved he looked a little anxious to impress, particularly on one early cross. Perhaps he was rusty from having played second fiddle to Dida at AC Milan. Got better as the match went on, just needs to be a little more sure coming for crosses.
Brett Emerton, 6.5; adapted well to being pushed further forward in the pre-game reshuffle to a 3-4-3, showed he still has bundles of fitness despite not playing much at Blackburn since the November qualifier. Hiddink will look to build his confidence up as he is an important part of the Socceroos formation.
Craig Moore, 7.5; in his first Socceroos game for almost 12 months, since the ill-fated Confederations Cup campaign, Moore played like he’d been under Hiddink for years. A model of composure and leadership.
Lucas Neill, 8; what a revelation Neill has been under Hiddink, both a central defender cum sweeper and a distributor from the back. Showed how adaptable he is by shifting to the left when Tony Popovic came on for Scott Chipperfield, making a number of timely runs up the flank.
Scott Chipperfield, 7; solid when he was acting as a stopper and showed how quick he is when venturing forward, another excellent display from this consistent Socceroo.
Jason Culina, 9; simply outstanding, along with Vince Grella he controlled the game with his brilliant technique and wonderful distribution, both long and short. On the one occasion Greek left back Fyssas got to the byline, it was Culina tracking back to snuff out the danger. Could emerge as one of the stars of the World Cup. Man of the match.
Vince Grella, 8.5; not far behind Culina, he was the launching pad for Australia’s domination in the first half and again picked Australia up in the second period after the Greeks had started well.
Josip Skoko, 8; excellent 60 minute hit-out for a player who hasn’t played much football this season. While his touch isn’t at tight as Culina, he’s an intelligent user of the ball, always looking to link up with a short pass. After a brilliant display against Bahrain in February, he scored another trademark long-range gem and will keep pressure on the likes of Tim Cahill and Marco Bresciano with this type of performance.
Marco Bresciano, 8.5; another outstanding display from one of the Socceroos’ true marathon men. He was everywhere, playing wide left, wide right and buzzing around the midfield whenever Greece had the ball. A constant threat with his set pieces, he will be one of Hiddink’s trump cards in Germany as he can just about play any one of four or five positions across the midfield.
Mile Sterjovski, 7.5; took his opportunity very well, creating countless openings down the right flank and even firing in a shot from the left. If there’s one area he will be disappointed in it’s his final delivery when in good positions. Too often it let him down, but his movement and involvement was excellent. Gives Hiddink options.
Mark Viduka, 7.5; for the hour he was on, the big man was at his calm and composed best, holding off defenders and bringing his wide men and midfielders into the game. Will be a little disappointed he didn’t have a shooting chance himself, but if he continues to be this influential, Hiddink won’t mind as it’ll be creating openings for others.
Tony Popovic, 6; a good 40 minute hit-out considering he hasn’t played much of late. Came in alongside Moore and never allowed Angelos Charisteas much space, solid job.
Luke Wilkshire, 6.5; Did some good things in the 30 minutes he had, combining well and Grella and Culina in the centre of midfield. Even got forward to hit one rasping shot just wide.
Archie Thompson, 6; Very busy contribution, making a nuisance of himself to the Greek central defenders. Worked back to pressurise the likes of Katsouranis and Zagorakis.
Stan Lazaridis, 5.5; Only had 15 minutes but got his foot on the ball a couple of times. Was a bit rushed crossing the ball on one occasion, understandable for someone who’s played as little football as him.
What were your thoughts on the Socceroos performance? Who stood out for you? and how do you think the Roos will fair in Germany? Post a comment.