World Cup Post #11
Tony Tannous in Kaiserslautern
CRUEL, harsh, unjust – call it what you will, Australia’s fairytale world cup run has ended the way it has been throughout, full of drama and edge of the seat intrigue. From Montevideo, to Sydney, Kaiserslautern, Munich, Stuttgart and finally Kaiserslautern again - wherever the Socceroos went, drama followed. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
This time it was a controversial injury time penalty, with the last action of an absorbing match, a cruel way for the Socceroos to bow out. Replays confirmed what many had intimated, that the decision to award Grosso the penalty was harsh, even incorrect.
Ironically, unjustly, it was Australia’s best player of the campaign, Lucas Neill, who was the man adjudged to have brought down Grosso. When the Socceroos skipper in waiting came across to cover an error in judgement from Bresciano, Neill committed, Grosso cut inside him and made the most of the fact that Neill was off his feet.
In any case, Totti showed enough composure, under intense pressure, to put away the spot kick with what turned out to be the last kick of the game. The Socceroos had no chance to do what they do best, come from behind.
It was a sad way to end what had been the most compelling coming out party Australia has seen. Thirty two years in waiting, Australia had finally had a chance to showcase its football on the world stage, an opportunity it relished, emerging as one of the true feel-good stories of this at times cynical world cup.
Here they huffed and puffed, adding to a growing reputation for not fearing anyone, but where never able to truly test a 10 man Italian team that demonstrated why its defence is so famed. For all the Socceroos domination of possession and control of the second half, they failed to create the chances, feeding off only the odd scrap left by this mean Azzuri rearguard.
If Buffon was awarded the official man of the match, it was the skipper, Fabio Cannavaro, who stood out with the most amazing defensive performance imaginable. While it is hard for us Socceroos fans to take, it was a privilege to witness this truly brilliant defender at the peak of his powers.
His ability to absorb whatever the Socceroos threw at him, both in the air and on the ground, was a master-class in how to defend. Australia’s skipper, Viduka, so crucial if the Socceroos were to test Italy’s back four, will have nightmares about the way Cannavaro dealt with him, never allowing him any space to turn, often reading the play and intercepting the ball before it reached the Socceroos playmaker.
Cannavaro wasn’t the only one thwarting the Socceroos - Zambrotta, Gattuso, Grosso, Materazzi before the red card and Perrotta were not far behind in demonstrating how a unit, even reduced by one, can defend their way the victory.
Cynical some might say, but you have to respect a team that can limit a Socceroos team that has created chance after chance against its other three opponents to the odd half bite.
In truth the Socceroos missed the spark and drive of Kewell and Emerton, Kewell because he could provide that little bit of magic that might have unlocked Italy’s rearguard and Emerton because he provides drive and penetration which was lacking in this match.
Hiddink had always argued that Australia’s depth, beyond the first 13 or 14 players, was limited, and here was the evidence. There was no natural replacement for Emerton, Wilkshire coming into central midfield, forcing Culina wide to the right.
Suddenly the Socceroos had lost two penetration players and this was crucial against a team that at times looked shaky against the drive of Ghana and the USA.
The Socceroos, surprisingly, played a more patient ball to feet game, and this suited the Azzuri. This was in part due to the Italian shape and the personnel available to Hiddink.
From the start the Italians were prepared to sit back with two lines of blue allowing the Socceroos to string passes across the back and in midfield, but as soon as Australia ventured into the last third of the pitch, the Italians swarmed and pressed, never giving Australia a sniff.
As soon as the ball was played into the Socceroos front four of Viduka, Bresciano, Cahill and Sterjovski, Italy squeezed and counter-attacked, and they threatened early, with three decent chances falling to the two front men in Toni and Gilardino.
But in the main the Socceroos did an outstanding job in nullifying the Italian threat, breaking up play early and never allowing playmaker Pirlo to settle. Grella, Wilkshire, Culina, Chipperfield, Moore and Neill all worked themselves into the ground. This was a real war of attrition, particularly in trying heat.
If the Socceroos had had little luck with the refereeing at this world cup, then the send off of Materazzi early in the second half appeared to be payback, particularly as he appeared to have cover.
On came central defender Barzagli for striker Toni and the pattern was set, the Socceroos in control and Italy looking to break through a 4-3-1-1, with Totti on to link up the midfield and attack.
With Italy’s emphasis on containment, you sensed Hiddink might go for broke, taking off a ball-to-feet central midfielder like Wilkshire and giving Skoko an opportunity to see if he could penetrate. Perhaps mindful of Italy’s threat on the counter and with extra time looming, Hiddink hesitated.
By the time Aloisi was introduced, he had little time, but he did provide one cross to the near post that Viduka was slow to react to, Buffon beating him to the ball.
The big man looked tired, as did his team. Three games in eight days had taken a toll and when Bresciano hesitated to deal with a diagnol ball, Grosso was away.
Afterwards, there was great sympathy for the Socceroos, described by more than one local as ‘the real winners’.
The Socceroos had lost, but they’d won, achieving more in 15 days than a nation has achieved in years.
Australia had arrived hopeful, but with question marks about how they’d cope in this elite company. It leaves as a football nation, both on an off the field. The world will speak glowingly about the Socceroos as an emerging football power, about an ambitious and positive mentality on the field and fun-loving and spirited supporters off it.
But the world of football is ultra competitive. What happens now is more crucial. The world will quickly forget about this performance if the Socceroos aren’t able to come back here regularly.
The legacy has been laid, it’s time to keeping doting the ‘i’s’ and crossing the ‘t’s’.