Tuesday, June 27, 2006

World Cup Post #11

Round of 16 match analysis, Socceroos vs Italy
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’.

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.

Friday, June 23, 2006

World Cup Post #9

Socceroos vs Croatia wrap – Australian juggernaut rocks and rolls into last 16
Tony Tannous in Stuttgart

THE Socceroos bandwagon rolls on, seemingly getting bigger, noisier and more popular by the day. When the last 16 teams in the world start the knock-out phase of the tournament tomorrow (German time), Australia will be among them, simply out of this world.

Stuttgart was transformed into a sea of yellow on this wonderful Thursday, the Socceroos fast becoming one of the stories of this world cup after twice, heroically, coming from behind against a stubborn Croatia to set up another date with destiny, against the might of Italy on Monday in Kaiserslautern.

It seems Australians, football followers and patriots alike, are flying in from all parts of the world, desperate for a ticket, but above all else, just desperate to be a part of these momentous weeks that defy belief. Even locals are fast warming to a team of heroes that personify Australia’s never say die mentality, one they can identify with.

After 32 years in the football wilderness, everyone, it seems, is hell bent on having a great time, and making the most of an opportunity we now know doesn’t come easily.

Before the game we mingled with Germans at the Schlossplatz, armed with tickets and dressed in green and gold, confident the Socceroos could do the job. Many had visited Australia at some stage, thus the attachment, but others had just been impressed with the spirit of the team, even in defeat against Brazil.

Their faith, and that of the Australians who had arrived in Stuttgart solely for this game, proved well founded, but not after the odd nervy moment. As if the drama of Uruguay, Japan and Brazil wasn’t enough, this night had everything, and then some more.

The Socceroos struggled to settle in the early exchanges, as if burdened by the occasion. Viduka gave the ball away in midfield trying to find Grella and then tracked back to make a challenge on the edge of the box, which was deemed by referee Graham Poll a tackle from behind.

Up stepped right wingback Dario Snra, Croatia’s dead-ball specialist, to shape one over the wall and past a diving Spider Kalac, surprisingly in the first 11 against the nation that gave birth to his parents.

Hiddink is full of surprises, and sees qualities in Kalac that he doesn’t see in Schwarzer, primarily his excellent distribution. Kalac is often a springboard for rapid Socceroos counterattack, spraying the ball wide to the left and the right early, invariably finding a man, and maintaining possession. It is a very South American and European style of play, the way Hiddink likes to play.

Schwarzer is more inclined to hang onto the ball and wait for his team to shape up further up the pitch, launching it forward, thus creating a contest which defenders invariably are favoured to win. It is more an English style of play, not surprising for a keeper who has spent much of his time in the EPL.

The poser for Hiddink is that Kalac’s hands don’t appear as safe these days, fumbling more times than he should at this level. His error for Niko Kovac’s goal was calamitous, but luckily for him, Kewell came to the rescue. While it mightn’t save Kalac from getting dropped, it did save him from forever being remembered as the man who cost Australia a second round birth.

It is this ‘fine detail’ that Hiddink ponders in choosing his players and what makes him such a successful manager. There is no doubt that Kalac was a success as the starting point for Australia’s domination of possession. His role in that shouldn’t be underestimated.

But the first fundamental in goalkeeping is to get the ball, and Kalac, perhaps due to a lack of games, has looked rusty.

While the Socceoroos fans had teased their Croatian counterparts for much of the day with the tune, “You’re red, you’re white, you’re going home tonight”, it was so nearly Kalac and the Socceroos fans that went home red-faced.

Kalac wasn’t the only one who looked nervous in the early exchanges, the Socceroos guilty of giving away too much possession in midfield as the experienced Igor Tudor imposed himself in front of a solid back three of Simunic, Tomas and Simic.

The early goal set the balance for the match, Croatia happy to drop back and absorb a Socceroos attack that was making too many mistakes, particularly in delivery from set pieces. With dead-ball specialist Bresciano on the bench, it was Chipperfield and Emerton entrusted with the set piece responsibility, but too often they got it wrong, failing to clear the first defender on corners.

But the Socceroos, empowered by the tough fitness regime in Melbourne and Holland, kept doing what they do best, coming forward and asking questions of the opposition.

Hiddink also had the tactical ascendency over his counterpart Krancjar, pinning respective wingbacks Babic and Snra by deploying wide options like Sterjovski on the right and Chipperfield and Kewell on the left.

The Socceroos were troubling Croatia whenever they went wide, particularly Sterjovski who had his best game in green and gold against a very good player in Babic.

Eventually the Croatians caved, conceding a penalty that was calmly dispatched by Moore, an outstanding contributor alongside Neill.

With Emerton back to his foraging best, showing phenomenal endurance, the Socceroos finished the half on top and back in control of their own destiny.

Kalac’s blunder changed this and for a while it looked like the Socceroos of old, a team with a penchant for shooting itself in the foot.

But this team has a sense of belief and fight that is hard to find, and in Hiddink someone who can read a game an adjust accordingly. With the Socceroos struggling with their final delivery into the box, too often comfortable for Pletikosa and his defence, it was time for Bresciano.

Fifteen minutes remained and Australia’s world cup aspirations were disappearing. It was time for one of its stars, Viduka or Kewell, to stand up.

With Kennedy and Aloisi on to provide further targets, Bresciano provided the telling cross which was calmly dispatched by Kewell, who had earlier fired straight at Pletikosa when a shot either side of him would have been a goal.

Suddenly the Socceroos were back in control, but the balance of the team had been shifted by the attacking substitutes. With Grella and Chipperfield sacrificed in search of the equaliser, suddenly Aloisi was deep in midfield, helping Kewell, Cahill and Bresciano, pressing the Croatians and denying them space.

Culina, nominally a midfielder, was at left back. When Emerton was red-carded, Cahill filled in. It was all hands on deck, heroic and brave, but hard to watch.

The post match celebrations were much easier on the eye, Hiddink sending his players back out of the dressing room to soak-up a qualification for the final 16 that doesn’t come around every day. It might for him, but not everyone.

The organisers did their part, the players dancing and clapping along to Australiana tunes like Men at Work’s ‘Land Down Under’ and ACDCs ‘T.N.T’, as Archie Thompson did his best impersonation of Bon Scott with the corner flag. It was crazy, some 20 or so thousand Australians turning VfB Stuttgart’s Gottlieb-Daimler Stadium into the Socceroos party for the next two hours as they partied and danced both inside and outside the stadium, scenes replicated long into the night around the Schlossplatz and bars around the city.

Outside the stadium I caught up with a couple of ex-Socceroos in Paul Trimboli and David Mitchell, heroes of the past who never got to experience these heights, at least on the field. But they were here, like thousands of others, to bask in this great new era for the game.

To some they were anonymous, to others a symbol of a time when the game struggled for mass appeal and respect. This was their reward as much as the current crop of players, enjoyed by Socceroo fans old and new.

What we’d seen wasn’t always the most flawless performance, but there is little argument the Socceroos deserved their point and their place in the second round. They had outplayed Japan and Croatia and taken it to the world champs for much of the second half, unlucky not to equalise. The Socceroos have survived and flourished in one of the toughest world cup groups, and arrived on the world stage, proving they are not here to merely make up the numbers.

Now comes another great test, against three-time world champs Italy, a team with an uncanny ability to soak up pressure and punish. Earlier in the day we had seen them under the pump for almost half an hour against the Czechs, surviving to score with their first foray forward, a corner monstered by Materazzi. It was typical Italy, absorb and conquer.

In the second period they were much more impressive, a subtle reminder that they have the experience to vary their strategy and get a job done.

But on the evidence of the three performances to date, the Socceroos will go into it with a nothing to lose attitude and, because of their physical conditioning, will have periods where they ask significant questions of the Azzuri rearguard. Just how successful they are at capitalising on these periods of domination will decide how they fare.

The Italians will not underestimate a team coached by Hiddink, who knocked them out with Korea four years ago, but for the Socceroos it will be another chance to take a major scalp and continue this juggernaut ride.

The prevailing attitude is that anything is possible, so it’s with that we move back to Kaiserslautern, memorable scene of the victory over Japan.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

World Cup Post #8

Socceroos v Croatia preview - Cool heads the key factor
Tony Tannous in Stuttgart

ONLY 24 hours till Australia's second round destiny is decided and Stuttgart is rocking with anxiety and expectation. Baring a Japan miracle against Brazil, all eyes will be on this encounter, to see who joins the world champs in the knockouts.

A healthy contingent of Croats now call this city home, and walking around the Schlossplatz, where the Stuttgart Fan Base has been set up, you sense us Australians will be outnumbered in the stands.

But, in Munich, the Australian fans proved that power of numbers counts for little, most of the time out partying the Brazilians, if such is thing is possible.

In what is sure to be a physical and passionate affair, particularly given the nationalistic link between the squads, you sense the team that stays coolest will prevail.

Both sets of fans are hoping and praying it will be their team, but neither is parading the streets in hostile expectation it will be thier side. There is a certain calm before the storm. Both realise this is going to be a tight contest, and the Socceroos will need to demonstrate everything Hiddink has instilled in them over the past 12 or so months - movement, tactical control, discipline and, above all else, calm - if they are to make this phenomenal world cup journey even more successful than it has already been.

If the Socceroos are defeated tomorrow, this shouldn't be seen as a tragedy. The Socceroos are in their first world cup in 32 years, and high quality performances against Japan and Brazil have made the world sit up and take notice. Germans, Brazilians, Mexicans and Swedes alike have largely been glowing in their assessment of our side.

Speak to cab drivers, oppossing fans on the streets and in the beer gardens and the picture emerges of a growing respect for our national team.

They realise we are young, in footballing terms, but they also respect the way we have gone about the task, full of belief, purpose, drive and that one characteristic that has impressed them the most, a never say die mentality.

Deep down you sense they are expecting us to fall at this final hurdle, sighting the experience of the Croatians in recent major tournaments, but when you mention the man behind the Socceroos ship, Hiddink, the ears prick.

Croatia do have the advantage of experience, which, at a tournament like this, when the crunch games are on, counts for a lot, as people here are quick to remind you, but the Socceroos do have a couple of trumps of their own.

Firstly, Hiddink is the man for an occasion, particularly given his recent experience with this tournament, but the big question is whether the players can deal with the occasion. We are about to find out.

Secondly, the Socceroos are in pole position, knowing a draw will be sufficient, but Hiddink will be clever not to play solely for a draw. That would be risky. If the Socceroos can score first, the pressure shifts to Croatia, and Australia can hit them on the counter.

If Croatia open the scoring, they have a strong defence that will try and defend the lead. One can see why cool heads are needed.

The first goal is crucial and if the Socceroos can get it, the pressure might be too much for Croatia, particularly given they have yet to open their account.

While the Socceroos are already heros regardless of this result, a draw or win tomorrow would top a cake that already tastes so sweet.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

World Cup Post #7

Report Card – Who’s hot and who’s not

Eleven days into the world cup and we’ve now had an opportunity to see each team twice. Just how are they tracking ahead of the final phase of games which will decide who progresses to round two? The Round Ball Analyst takes you through the groups and identifies who’s making and losing ground.

Group A: Fate sealed, it’s the host and Ecuador that progress. All that needs deciding is in what order. Germany impressed in the first game, a comfortable win over an average Costa Rica that showcased its new-found attacking flair, but also highlighted their deficiencies at the back. Wanchope exposed a defence which was caught too square too often, but going forward their power was too much for Costa Rica. Lahm, Frings, Freidrich, Borowski and Klose caught the eye. Against neighbours Poland, it was a much tougher assignment, the Germans relying on the attribute that has achieved them so much success at this level, mental toughness. A lesser team would have given up, but the hosts did what they do best, fight till the end. The battle to see who joined the hosts in the second round was always the most intriguing aspect of this group, with one team set to make a breakthrough. As it is it’s Ecuador, a team that came into the tournament with question marks about its ability to play away from the high altitude of Quito. They’ve answered that emphatically, thanks largely to a couple of defensively brilliant showings against Poland and Costa Rica. De la Cruz, Hurtado, Espinoza and Reasco have been revelations, an organised unit that has providing the platform for the likes of Delgado and Carlos Tenorio to feel comfortable going forward. Their biggest test will come in the final group game, but if they can do well in that, it will give them the confidence to do well in the second round against a weak looking group B. Poland and Costa Rica have lacked class, particularly the central Americans.

Group B; England have booked a second round birth, but hardly impressively. They were good for half an hour against a Paraguay team that was guilty of showing them too much respect. When Paraguay decided to play, they gave asked England a few questions, but the South American’s tactics of pumping endless long balls into an England defence that relishes the stuff was perplexing. England scrambled well in defence. Against Trinidad & Tobago it was England bossing the ball, but their use of it lacked imagination. Too often it was a case of get it wide to Beckham to cross for Crouch, or get it forward to Crouch and try and pick up the crumbs. It eventually worked, but hardly inspired confidence England can do well in this tournament. The teams that do well are invariably the ones that can sustain some form of possession, and with prized assets like Lampard and Gerrard in midfield, England really should be looking to pass it around better. Thankfully for them they are in one of the softest groups. Sweden stuttered against a determined Trinidad & Tobago, firing blanks, and then had to rely on a very late winner against a poor Paraguay. With two of their main attackers struggling (Ljungberg with injury and Ibrahimovich with form), they could still top the group if they can get amongst England, who hasn’t beaten them for four decades. If Sweden fails, then the door opens for Trinidad and Tobago, a united team that lacks the class.

Group C; So much for the group of death- Argentina and Holland have been too strong and impressive, especially the Argentines, who are clearly playing the best football at this stage of the tournament. Their demolition of Serbia & Montenegro in the second game was breathtaking, and Cambiasso’s goal will live long in the memory. They are quick, in-synch, inventive and lethal. Controlling things at the back and in the middle through to likes of Ayala, Heinze, Sorin and Mascherano, they have been breathtaking in possession, combining the likes of Rodriguez, Riqueleme, Saviola and Crespo to tear the Serbs apart after a closer tussle with a strong Ivory Coast, who have been a little unfortunate to lose both games by one goal. The Dutch have done enough in both their games without blowing either the Serbs or Ivory Coast away. They have stretched teams with Robben and Van Persie impressing, but their biggest test will come against the Argentines, who have been teasing us with the sporadic use of two of their stars, Messi and Tevez. The battle to top the group is vital, as both teams would want to avoid a likely date with Portugal.

Group D; Favourites Portugal did enough in their opener against Angola, without ever really getting into top flight, and then had to rely on another two late goals against Iran, one a stunner from Deco They are warming into the tournament, not yet flowing, but with the likes of Deco and Figo looking impressive on the ball, they have the potency to control games. The jury is still out on whether Pauleta can score enough goals to take them deep into the tournament. Mexico are also doing enough at this stage, knocking off a stubborn and spirited Iran with two late goals, before a disappointing draw with Angola, where they appeared to miss the cutting edge normally provided by Borgetti. Top of the group is still possible, but Portugal would be favoured. Iran and Angola have competed well in both games, but lacked a killer instinct that comes with experience. Surprise packets Angola, with Figueiredo featuring in midfield, can still qualify if they win by two and Mexico lose to Portugal.

Group E; The group that has attracted much of the attention, it is the most open. Any of the four can either make it or miss out, with Ghana catching the eye. The Italians sit top by one point from the Czechs and Ghana, but have hardly been impressive. Efficient is probably the right word, but you have to respect the way they were able to control a Ghana midfield that had threatened to run riot in the early exchanges. The Azzuri are the masters at absorbing pressure and have enough options up front to get the job done. It was a case of the mighty, mighty Czechs, against the USA, followed by the ghastly, ghastly Czechs against Ghana. This is all down to one man, Jan Koller. When he limped off against the USA, the Czechs chances of doing well in this tournament may just have gone with him. Lokvenc looked a lumbering dinosaur in comparison. Koller is the king of their attack, providing the likes of Nedved and Rosicky the space to run riot, as they did against the States. Against Ghana it was the amazing midfield trio of Essien, Appiah and Muntari, combined with the movement and power of Gyan and Amoah up front that was too much for the Czechs to handle. As hard as Nedved tried, he didn’t have the support or the bouncing board that is Koller.. As poor as the USA were against the Czechs, they were much better against Italy, troubling them with the pace of Dempsey and Cherundolo on the right. They are still in with a sniff, but would do well to knock off a Ghana team that looks too powerful, both technically and physically. While I haven’t been surprised about their attacking potency, their organisation and athleticism in defence caught the eye against the Czechs, and it would be a shame if they didn’t progress to the second round.

Group F; Brazil have done what they do best, build themselves into the tournament with tough victories over Croatia and the Socceroos. While they haven’t been entirely impressive, they have kept two clean sheets and scored three goals against teams that have defended in numbers and denied them space. Brazil has show the patience and the defensive steel required to do well in a tournament like this, and while the likes of Ronaldo and Ronaldinho have at times struggled to find the room, Kaka, Adriano and Robinho have stepped up. The battle for second is much hotter and likely to be decided by the final game in Stuttgart between Australia and Croatia. Our boys have been the more impressive of the two, fighting back to win a game we dominated against Japan, before an ultra impressive performance against Brazil where the likes of Bresciano, Kewell and Viduka got in behind the Brazilians more times than they would have liked. Under Hiddink Australia is playing a technical passing game with a certain physical steel that could frustrate the Croatians. The Socceroos are also flexible enough to play a more direct style and Hiddink is the master of the mind games. The Croats were impressive and organised against Brazil but showed their characteristic enigmatic nature against Japan. The Japanese would need a minor miracle to get through – beat Brazil by a couple of goals and hope the Socceroos don’t win.

Group G; Another group which is open thanks to some far from impressive work by a French side which has too many old legs in midfield (thus not enough drive). They were lucky to survive the Switzerland game with a point after the Swiss hit the post and had a Frei header denied by Barthez’s feet. Against South Korea they also failed to show the requisite strength, conceding a sloppy equaliser late. Switzerland and the South Koreans have been far more impressive, deservedly sitting atop the group on four points. The Swiss have been solid defensively, well organised and strong through the middle and create chances through Barnetta and Frei. They are an emerging team. The Koreans have showed they have fight, bouncing back after going a goal behind to Togo and then France. If the French finally click into gear against Togo, they will end up on five points, and if the other two teams cancel each other out, this group could be decided on goal difference. The Swiss are in the box seat at this stage, on plus two. There would be little sympathy for the French if they bowed out, they are a shadow of the side that won France ’98 and Euro 2000.

Group H; Is this to be Spain’s turn to make an impression? On the evidence of their first game against Ukraine, the answer is yes. On the evidence of their first half against Tunisia, the answer is no. On the evidence of their second half against Tunisia, yes. So which Spain will turn up when the crunch games are on? They need to be more consistent and respect all their opponents, from the opening whistle. Against Tunisia they were half asleep, expecting to comfortably win. No such thing in modern football. Impressing have been the likes of Torres, Alonso, Xavi and Villa, but they will need to remain focussed. The Ukraine, in their first world cup, can be excused their first up hiding at the hands of Spain, but they bounced back in style against Saudi Arabia and their final game against Tunisia will decide who goes through with Spain. They will need to be weary of Jaziri. Lemerre’s team have been hot and cold, good in the first half against the Saudis, poor in the second, excellent in the first half against Spain, average in the second. The Saudis have had one good half, the second against Tunisia, and appear outclassed.

Monday, June 19, 2006

World Cup Post #6

Socceroos v Brazil wrap – Socceroos making heads turn and people talk
Tony Tannous in Ohringen

BE proud Australia, be very proud.

But for the scoreline and the odd bit of wastefulness in front of goal, this was a performance of high quality from a Socceroos team that is quickly gaining respect around the world.

Playing on the world stage, against the world champs, Australia lived in this rare company for large parts of a game, only settled by another Brazilian moment of individual brilliance, this time when Adriano, left one on one with Chipperfield on the edge of the 18 yard box, shifted the ball to has favoured left peg and blasted past Schwarzer.

Even then it only spurred the Socceroos forward in search of what would have been a deserved goal. They had their chances, the likes of Kewell, Viduka and Bresciano, but were denied by some brilliant defensive work and some missed opportunities.

While many in the large Australian contingent at the amazing Allianz Area felt injustice had been dealt by a whistle-happy Marcus Merk, the reality is that his decisions didn’t affect the Socceroos fate.

It was just one of those days in football where the ball appeared destined to stay out. While Kewell’s chance, when left with an open goal after Dida dropped it, may have came too early (it was his second touch after coming off the bench), Bresciano was twice denied by brilliant defensive work.

When he raced clear, it appeared only Dida could deny him, but the monster of Brazil’s midfield on this night, man of the match Ze Roberto, made a sprint from the halfway line, timing his tackle in the box to perfection, just as Bresciano was ducking inside to create some space for the shot.

The fist pump in the direction of his bench as he got up from the challenge proved this Brazilian side is not just about attacking flair – it has the defensive steel and desire to do well.

Ze Roberto didn’t stop there. When he gave the ball away in central midfield a short time later, Kewell burst through on the counterattack. Once again it was the no. 11 who chased and made a decisive tackle.

Late on, Bresciano had a volley brilliantly clawed away by Dida.

Viduka also had a couple of chances go over and wide of the frame and will be particularly disappointed he couldn’t keep his late lob under the crossbar.

Despite these misses, Australia had mixed it with Samba kings, defending compactly and in a unit and never allowing Brazil to breath, particularly in the first half.

Once again it was Hiddink’s master tactics, and the players amazing ability to heed them, that did the trick.

Knowing the Brazilians play with two up front (Ronaldo and Adriano), he crowded the midfield, pushing Emerton high up on the right, to place pressure on Ronaldinho, with nearby support from Culina, charged with the responsibility of ensuring Roberto Carlos didn’t overlap. Two guys that spent their formative years at Sydney Olympic were back in-synch and controlling Australia’s right.

On the other side, Sterjovski was deployed high up on the left, again to keep Cafu busy. It was as if his instructions were to defend from the front. Behind him in midfield, just left of Grella and Cahill, was Chipperfield, helping Grella, Cahill and Culina crowd the space for Ronaldinho, Kaka, Emerson and Ze Roberto.

The width that was missing from the Japan game worked. Rarely have Carlos and Cafu been so quiet. Even when Popovic was injured, Chipperfield shifted to stopper, Sterjovski moved onto Carlos, Culina into a more central role and Bresciano to the left side of attack. It was seamless stuff.

With little more than 20 metres between Viduka and the back three, it was a compact and organised side, designed to frustrate and contain.

Yet the Socceroos, showing calm and maturity, were also able to sustain periods of possession, crucial to relieve some of the pressure.

Neill and Grella were the starting point for most of Australia’s good work, whether defensively or as the launching pads in distribution, but they had 12 heroic mates. Emerton was back to his best, crucial if Australia is to march on.

Tactically, it was a similar game plan to that used by Croatia against Brazil. Yet the Brazilians showed they have the patience to go with the obvious talent. After the break they stepped through the gears and the Socceroos were unable to halt them.

Yet Adriano’s goal forced the Socceroos out. It would either mean an equaliser or another Brazilian goal on the counter. With Robinho fresh and buzzing and the Socceroos failing to capitalise on their excellent comeback, it was Fred who tapped in a Robinho effort for a scoreline that flattered Brazil.

Afterwards the Brazilians celebrating outside the stadium and at Marienplatz in downtown Munich admitted 2-0 hadn’t been fair on our Socceroos. The consensus was that the Socceroos had, at worst, deserved a one-goal loss, at best, a draw. It was respect.

Even today, at the Socceroos training headquarters in the beautiful town of Ohringen, the general feeling among the locals was that the team they have adopted as their own, were impressive if a little unlucky, and lacked that killer instinct that comes with experience.

Regardless, Germans have warmed to the team, not only for their impressive build up play, but more importantly for them, because of the Socceroos’ never say die mentality. It is one that clearly resonates in this part of the world.

In Ohringen, sales of Socceroos merchandise are roaring. One shop owner said shirts have been the most popular item and that buyers kept coming, no doubt impressed by Australia’s two games to date.

While there was a general feeling of despondency among the travelling Socceroos army straight after the game, today, at training, the mood was more positive and upbeat. Australians mingled with locals and some Germans who had travelled significant kilometres to see the Socceroos up close.

Morale within the squad appears high, and so it should be. Yesterday’s performance proves the Socceroos are here to compete, not just take part. If they can replicate the performance against Croatia, a result is achievable. Not easy, but possible. If not, then the Socceroos have certainly left a positive imprint on this tournament, painting Australian football in a strong light.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

World Cup Post #5

Socceroos vs Brazil preview – Right side needs to be sorted right away
Tony Tannous in Stuttgart

IF the Socceroos are to make any inroads in their blockbuster clash with world champs Brazil tomorrow (German time) in Munich, they will first need to do the job right, particularly down the right.

That’s because the right side of Australia’s team has been the weakest link in the three games since beating Greece at the MCG, a game that now seems an eternity ago.

Against Holland and Leichtenstein in the friendlies and Japan in the epic victory on Monday, the Socceroos have failed to have any success down the right side. Indeed, in all three games it has been plainly obvious that any penetration has come from the left side.

Guus Hiddink has tried a myriad of options, none of them really successful, and against the likes of Roberto Carlos and Ronaldinho, the two players likely to be foraging down Brazil’s left, any hesitation or lack of quality will prove costly, very costly.

Part of the problem is the major loss of form and confidence from Brett Emerton. Once a terror down the right, these days Emerton is struggling to get his game back to the lofty standards he set at Feyenoord and in his early days at Blackburn.

Six months, essentially spent warming the bench at Ewood Park, hasn’t helped.

Indeed, such has been the ineffectiveness as a right sided attacker that Hiddink has shifting him back to right back, where he first made an impression in Europe.

But Emerton has hinted he prefers not to have the defensive responsibility, preferring the freedom to come forward at his own choosing. By playing at right back, his first duty is to defend.

It prompted Hiddink to throw him into central midfield for the second half of the Leichtenstein game, a position he started in against Japan. There, it seems, Emerton can get forward from the right side of central midfield without concern there will be no cover for him.

While always possessing the energy to press, it has been his lack of effectiveness on the ball that has been so evident. Too often Emerton has wasted the ball, largesse Australia can ill-afforded against the Brazilians, who will detect any weakness and target it until it cracks.

Against Japan Hiddink played one of his favourites, Luke Wilkshire, on the right, his job to nullify Alex Santos, but in reality it was the naturalised Brazilian who had the better of the flank. Wilkshire failed to get close enough, and when he did, struggled to keep up with Santos. When on the ball, Emerton and Wilkshire lost too much of it.

Against Holland and Leichtenstein Hiddink had used Sterjovski as an attacking right-sided option, but he was also ineffective on both occasions. To some degree Hiddink’s options are tied by a lack of quality alternatives down the right, but he will have to sort is out quickly.

With Carlos and Ronaldinho offering such a potent threat, Australia can ill afford to be on the back foot for 90 minutes. So Hiddink might play with two wide men in support of Viduka - Kewell and one other, maybe Cahill or Bresciano (the other may come from the middle, behind Viduka).

This would keep the likes of Cafu and Carlos busy defensively, at least for some periods, relieving pressure from the midfield and defence, who can then concentrate on shutting down the likes of Ronaldinho and Kaka.

Perhaps with Emerton back at right back, and Culina playing alongside Grella as a right-sided defensive midfielder, enough pressure can be put on Ronaldinho.

Croatia proved it can be done if the team is disciplined and organised, with Dario Simic and Dario Snra doubling up to deny Ronaldinho space.

While he normally drives infield, his starting position is invariably on the left sideline. What the Croatians did so well was have Simic high up the pitch, tight on Ronaldinho, with others rushing to support. It was compact stuff.

While it created a couple of shooting opportunities for the likes of Kaka and Ronaldo, it was a calculated gamble from Croatia. If you leave Ronaldinho one on one, he’ll carve you up.

The strength of this Brazilian side is that if one, two or three of the stars if off his game, there is a fourth, fifth or sixth that will burn you if given an inch.

Nullifying them all over the pitch is no small feat, but only if the personnel and strategy is right, particularly down the right, can the Socceroos entertain any thoughts of continuing the fairytale and making a gigantic mark on the world cup.

Tens of thousands of Aussies are descending on Munich for the biggest game is Australia’s history and I’ll be among those at the sensational Allianz Arena, providing a birds-eye account of the proceedings. Do visit after the match for a comprehensive review and go the mighty Socceroos.

Friday, June 16, 2006

World Cup Post #4

The one that got away

I've had a couple of emails from back home wondering where my preview of the Socceroos v Japan game was? Truth is I was at an internet cafe in Frankfurt about to post it, just before charter train to Kaiserslautern was due to leave, when I got the call it was about to take off. Post the story or miss the game? Easy choice, so here it is, better late than never.

THE anxiety kills. After an abbreviated first night of sleep in Frankfurt, it’s a short train trip to Kaiserslautern aboard a chartered ‘Aussie Express’ and, after a 32 year wait, finally the eyes of the world will be fixed on our beloved Socceroos.

I had the good fortune to travel from Hong Kong to Frankfurt with Koichi Goto, a keen and knowledgeable Blue Samuari fan, who was travelling to Germany for his third World Cup, after following his team to France ‘98 and his home town of Sapporo four years later.

This time he was travelling more in hope than total belief his team can progress to the next round, appreciating the difficulty in getting out a group containing Brazil, Croatia and Australia. No blind enthusiasm from Koichi, just honest and informed appraisal.

Much of his cautious approach was centred around Brazilian legend Zico, Koichi arguing that, while he is largely popular back home, those in the know know he hasn’t always pulled the right moves at the right times.

Refreshing to hear when you have someone like Hiddink in your corner who might exploit and tactical deficiencies.

Yet Koichi was travelling ticket-less, so there must have been some expectation? "It’s a tough game, the most important game, and I didn’t want to miss it."

He described it as too close to call, and, as has been the general perception in Australia, was concerned about how the Japanese defence would function, particularly if bombarded with crosses and set pieces.

He was particularly worried about central sweeper Miyamoto, he of the masked face in 2002, a diminutive presence, good on the ground, but supposedly suspect to the aerial assault.

He offered further insight into Japan’s 3-5-2, predicting Miyamoto would be flanked by Kakazawa at left stopper and Tsuboi on the right, with naturalised Brazilian Santos at left wing-back and Komano on the right, given an opportunity due to an injury to Kaji.

While good going forward, Santos is not so effective the other way, leaving holes that Hiddink will look to exploit by having a player stay wide right, possibly pulling Kakazawa out of the middle to cover Santos, leaving space in the middle for Cahill to attack from deep.

Just who Hiddink uses wide will probably decide how effective the Socceroos are at pinning Japan’s wing-backs back. There is much intrigue around this, with Hiddink, as he does, keeping everyone guessing, particularly with injury concerns over Kewell and Cahill.

Kewell, whether as a starter or substitute, could be crucial to providing the ammunition from out wide for the likes of Viduka and the late arriving Cahill (and possibly Kennedy and Aloisi off the bench) to attack aerially.

It might be that he alternates with Bresciano, taking turns on the right.

Fukunishi, Japan’s defensive minded midfielder, is crucial for them, responsible for tracking runs from the likes of Cahill, Bresciano and Skoko.

The battle in midfield will be hot and competitive, Fukinishi and the excellent ball players Nakata and Nakamura up against Grella, Culina and any one from Cahill, Skoko or Bresciano.

If the Socceroos can dominate and control these areas, at least for parts of the game, they might be able to pin Japan back on the flanks and provide the crosses to test Miyamoto and Co., particularly if they can drag the tallest of the trio, Kakazawa, wide.

Defensively, the Socceroos will have to deal with the movement of Yanagisawa (if he isn’t deemed fit after an injury, it will be Tamada, goal-scorer against Malta), who will try and drag the central duo of Moore and Neill wide, creating space for the tricky Takahara to weave his stuff around the box, which he did so lethally against Germany.

While Australia will look to ask questions of Japan’s defence, the key to getting a result will be to remain composed and organised at the back. There were signs against Holland of some frailty at set pieces and some diving-in around the box, problems that will be exposed at this elite level.

The Socceroos will be weary not to defend too high up the pitch, knowing the speedy Japanese attack can exploit any space in behind. Equally, if they defend too deep, that will create space for Nakata and Nakamura. Getting the defensive line right and remaining compact from front to back is crucial, and if the Socceroos do get it right, a result is achievable.

Knowing that a loss would dent the second round ambitions of both sides, it wouldn’t surprise if a stalemate eventuated.

After such a long wait to be back on this stage, a win would be lovely, a defeat is too hard to imagine. Here, the result more than the performance, is paramount.

Onwards to Kaiserslautern we go.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

World Cup Post #3

Croatia prove the job isn’t quite done for the Socceroos
Tony Tannous in Berlin

IF any further evidence was needed of the importance of the Socceroos thrilling come from behind victory over Japan, than it was there in abundance in last night’s (German time) fantastic group F clash between Brazil and Croatia.

One-nil it ended to the world champs thanks to one sublime piece of individuality, but from an Australian perspective, it was the performance of Croatia, now likely to be Australia’s major rival for a second round birth, that caught the eye, or at least visualised how it difficult it will be to get out of the group.

They may have lost, but the performance was top notch, full of aggressive play, good technique, movement and organisation.

In one of the standout games of the first phase, the Croatians were disciplined but tough, matching a strong Brazil across all parts of the pitch. At the back they were tight, deep and organised. Simunic, Tudor, Simic and Robert Kovac are an experienced backline and never allowed Ronaldo and Adriano any space to get in behind them, forcing the Brazilians to resort to shooting from a distance, an invitation Kaka gleefully accepted.

In midfield the likes of Srna, Babic, Krancjar and Leko never allowed Ronaldinho space, doubling up on him, crowding the middle and keeping him wide. The thing so impressive about Croatia’s shape was how compact it was. They never gave Brazil room to play.

The battle between Babic and Cafu was particularly eye-catching, the Croatians using the space down their left cleverly. Brazil play a narrow midfield, with Kaka playing in front of Emerson, thus placing emphasis on Cafu to patrol the right flank.

It was a wonderful battle, both players going at each other for most of the match. Points even.
Up front, the duo of Prso and Klasnic gave the Brazilian back four a working over. Most people think of Brazil as merely an attacking unit, but here they had to produce one of the best defensive displays to keep out these two busy front-men, proving they have the defensive steel and desire to do it.

Lucio and Juan, and Cafu and Carlos either side of them, had to work overtime to keep a clean sheet, particularly in the second half. It was high quality front play, but even better defending.

In midfield, Ze Roberto and Emerson were also immense, rarely allowing Krancjar to sneak forward and getting back to help their back four. After limping out four years ago, Emerson seems hell bent on making up ground. He was everywhere.

All over it was a high quality affair, fittingly sealed by a high quality finish.

The Croats were clearly up for it, but they do have a reputation for lifting for the big games and then taking their foot off the pedal when expected to win. Temperamental, moody, enigmatic, call it what you will, but they can play.

On this showing they are still a strong chance to progress with Brazil, but can take nothing for granted. First they have to get past Japan and hope Brazil do them a favour against the Socceroos. Then it’s game on in Stuttgart.

The Socceroos, already on three points, are in the box seat, but last night was a reminder that it’s far from over.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

World Cup Post #2

Monday June 12 2006, Kaiserslautern, One of the great days in Australian Sport
Tony Tannous, back in Frankfurt

MARK it down in your diaries, June 12 2006, one of the greatest and most proud days in Australian sport, let alone football. There have been many of late, November 16 in Sydney, the A-League grand final in March, its launch weekend in August last year, but this day in Kaiserslautern defies belief, and not only for the football. It just gets better and better.

1-0 down, only seven or so minutes left and the game seemingly lost, with it Australia's hopes of getting out of the group, the Socceroos summoned every last ounce of desire and belief, kept asking questions of a Japanese defence which had until then refused to yield.

Then, crash, bang, wallop, three goals in less than 10 minutes. It defied belief.

There was delirium in the massive Australian contingent at the Fritz-Walter Stadium, mostly disbelief, but also a sense of justice after a controversial goal awarded to Nakamura just before the half hour. For large parts of the match it looked like one of those games where destiny appeared to be with Japan.

Australia had run rings around the Japanese in the opening exchanges without being able to apply the killer blow. Viduka was proving a monster, impossible to deal with for Miyamoto, Tsuboi and Kakazawa, forcing Kawaguchi into a double stop before Bresciano first fired over, then had a tame shot saved.

The Socceroos where bossing the midfield, Grella aggressive and Kewell proving an outlet between the midfield and Viduka. Neill and Chipperfield were dominating the back. Australia were using the wonderful passing game we had seen against Uruguay and Greece, pass and move, flick and turn, hold the ball as teammate makes space off the ball. It was fresh and incisive, indeed new football.

But the old adage is about converting when you dominate and the Socceroos were guilty, and punished.

Japan had hitherto barely threatened. Only naturalised Brazilian Alex Santos, running and terrorising Luke Wilkshire, down Japan's left, looked a regular concern.

But when Nakamura drifted in a tame cross, it was Schwarzer who looked to have been nudged away from the flight path, the ball evading a pack and crossing the line. Tragedy for Australia.

And it seemed to throw the Socceroos. Suddenly their composure was lost, forced to press further forward in search of an crucial equaliser.

It left gaps at the back, and Japan were only to willing to use the pace and good technique of Nakata, Takahara, Nakamura and Santos on the counter-attack, stretching Australia from side to side. The more Australia pressed, the more likely they looked to concede, particularly with Fukunishi doing such an admirable job of stopping the ball getting to Viduka.

With Wilkshire unable to provide an outlet down Australia's right, and Emerton a shadow of the attacking threat he once was, Australia looked short on ideas, particularly down the right.

Plan A - keep the ball on the deck and try and manouvere an opening - was no longer working, so it was time for Plan B, the aerial assault. On came Kennedy and Cahill and suddenly the Socceroos were pumping long balls forward, hoping for some crumbs around the box. Aloisi re-inforced the troops with 10 to go.

It wasn't pretty, but in a game where the result was paramount, nobody cared.

The pre-game talk was that the Socceroos would try and expose a seemingly suspect Japanese defence by getting the ball wide and in, but with Culina and Komano cancelling each other out down Australia's left, and Wilkshire struggling to contain Santos on the other side, let alone provide a viable option on the ball, Australia was losing the battle of the flanks.

But the addition of Kennedy, Cahill and Aloisi changed this, as did the limping off of stopper Tsuboi. Suddenly the Socceroos were asking more and more questions, forcing the Japanese to compete aerially time and again. Would they crack?

They did. When Neill pumped in one of his trademark long throws, an aerial duel saw the crumbs fall to Cahill, who, as against Holland, was in the right place at the right time. Parity.

It got better. Knowing a victory could set up a second round appearance and not having the personnel to defend a draw, the Socceroos pressed again, Aloisi holding the ball up and squaring it to Cahill on the edge of the box. He had time, looked up and measured his placed shot. Pandemonium.

Lucky to survive what looked a legitimate penalty claim at the other end, the Socceroos killed off the game when Aloisi ran at a tiring defence and placed past Kawaguchi, who had earlier denied Viduka and Aloisi with a couple of great stops from free kicks. A team that had controlled most of the game had got its reward.

It was the culmination of one of the most patriotic days in Australia's short history, Kaiserslautern coverted into a mini Australian city as tens of thousands decended on the small city, dotted in Germany's south-east. We outnumbered the Samurai Blue about four to one, it was massive.

In the stands, at the ground, Socceroo fans, new and old, rejoiced, cheering on the boys before and during the game, then going crazy in the final ten minutes and for a long time afterwards. George Negus, Matthew Johns, Kevin Muscat, Kristian Sarkies, Alex Tobin, Paul Trimboli, Andy Harper, parents like Branko Culina, all joined an amazing travelling sea of yellow. Easy on the eye.

But it wasn't all beer and skittles, the performance leaving Hiddink with a bit to work on, particularly the concern down the right, but the one thing that can't be questioned is the cause and committment from the players, management and fans alike.

After 32 years in the wilderness, everyones appreciates the opportunity before them, and everyone appears hell bent on enjoying it. Bring on the Samba kings.

Monday, June 12, 2006

World Cup Previews continued – Groups G and H

In the final instalment of a comprehensive look at the eight groups, The Round Ball Analyst examines two groups that might just contain a surprise or two for the favourites.

Group G – Surely Le Bleus can’t stumble again.

AFTER the disaster that was their 2002 campaign and a patchy qualification run that hung in the balance until the last couple of rounds, France will do well not to underestimate anyone this time around. This isn’t the French unit that marched away with World and European crowns in ’98 and 2000, but it remains to be seen if it is the same unit that were humbled so meekly by Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark in ’02 and Greece in ’04. There have been signs of improvement of late, particularly since Zidane, Thuram and Makelele came out of retirement, but they would need Zidane to turn back the clock and an immense performance from Henry to have any chance of lifting the trophy. Henry remains an enigma, a week to week legend for Arsenal, but a player who has yet to produce it in the major finals and competitions, a point re-emphasised by a couple of crucial misses in the Champions League final. Rarely will he get a better opportunity in a group that appears reasonably comfortable. The major threat will come from competitive neighbour Switzerland, one of Europe’s big improvers over the past couple of years, knocking off Turkey in the play-offs after drawing twice with France in the group phase. Senderos will be hoping to reproduce his European form, Frei is crucial up front and Tranquillo Barnetta is said to be a gun. The two other sides, South Korea and Togo, appear less of a threat, the Koreans a shadow of the team from four years ago, while tiny Togo have made a major breakthrough just by being here.
Crucial clash? The opener between France and Switzerland on June 13, likely to decide who tops the group.
Upset potential? Slim, Korea’s form has been up and down, while Togo doesn’t appear to have the quality of Senegal to spring a surprise. Expect the Europeans to progress, the only intrigue being in what order?
Most looking forward to seeing? Whether the great man, Zidane, can produce it one last time. The odds say no, but wouldn’t it be nice! Switzerland have been building nicely towards hosting the Euro’s in two years, can they keep it going?

Group F – Is there to be more pain for Spain?

THAT is the big question for one of the world’s greatest underachievers. How does a nation so blessed in football tradition and with the best league in the world not have a world title? There is little doubt this current crop has the talent, particularly in midfield, but do they have the togetherness, perhaps the key ingredient to success? Problems between Basque and Catalan have too often brought Spain to its knees, but if the likes of Alonso, Puyol, Fabregas, Iniesta, Xavi and Villa do well, who knows? There are others – Raul, Joaquin and Torres – who are there on reputation ahead of performance, so its time to repay Aragones’ faith. If there are any slip-ups, expect a united Ukraine side and a much-improved Tunisia to pounce. Both offer intrigue and the potential to surprise. Ukraine was the first nation to qualify from Europe on the back of an excellent defence, a ruthless streak going forward and some excellent coaching from a Ukraine legend, Oleg Blokhin. If Shevchenko can fire he will have plenty of support. Tunisia is also well coached by Roger Lemerre and caught the eye at the Confed Cup, particularly naturalised Brazilian Dos Santos, Australia’s nemesis. If they beat Saudi Arabia on the opening day, as they should, they will put pressure on the other two.
Crucial clash? The opening round sets things up again. If Spain stumbles against Ukraine, the pressure will be on in their second match, against Tunisia. History proves they’ve struggled to handle pressure, but Alonso could be their key if he is given the license by Aragones to control this team.
Upset potential? High, the Ukraine and Tunisia are waiting to pounce if Spain fail again.
Most looking forward to seeing? Have Spain got the unity and the bottle to do the job? The pressure will be on the likes of Aragones, Raul, Torres and Joaquin. How will they respond? Ukraine is on the big stage for the first time and where so impressive in qualifying, but can they step up at their first attempt and can Shevchenko become a World Cup hero? The battle of the managers is rivetting; can Blokhin and Lemerre outsmart Aragones?

That wraps up a preview of all eight groups, A and B, C and D, E and F and today´s look at groups G and H. So, after all that, who do you think will win? For me, the winner will come from Portugal, Holland or Brazil, with Germany likely to improve as the tournament goes on. Stay tuned for more coverage from Germany.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

World Cup Post #1

The hosts get the party rolling

CURRENTLY in transit at Hong Kong International Airport, awaiting connection to Frankfurt. Before leaving I had time to sample a terrific opening encounter, as well as snippets from the Ecuador win over Poland while waiting to board at Sydney.

The Germans were ultra impressive going forward and started in their usual up-tempo manner, pressing Costa Rica all over th pitch. It was Germany doing what they do best, using their physical strength to over-power a weaker opponent, but they did it with exellent technique and a couple of absolute bombs from Lahm and Frings, the two best players on the pitch.

Right and left backs Lahm and Freidrich pressed forward from the opening whistle, pinning Costa Rica back, while Frings bossed the midfield, creating room for the likes of Scweinsteiger, Borowski and Schneider to bring Podolski and Klose into the game.

Costa Rica didnt do themselves any favours, defending too deep and inviting Germany forward.

It was dominant stuff from the Germans, but defensively there were some real concerns for Klinsmann, his defence getting caught square too often. Defending high up the field, there was little cover whenever Costa Rica managed to string a few passes together, Wanchope exposing a lack of pace and cover in the central area.

Overall however, an impressive way for the Germans to kick-off the tournament, more enterprsing then we've grown accustomed to seeing, long may it continue.

From what I did catch of the Ecuador victory over Poland, it was the Ecuadoran back four which laid the platform for there success, a crucial win which places them in pole position for a second round birth. Poland huffed and puffed but didnt appear to have the quality to break them down. Ecuador are gifted on the ball, well organised at the back and counter-attacked well, a deserved win.

Onwards to Frankfurt.

Friday, June 09, 2006

World Cup Previews continued – Groups E and F

Groups A and B plus C and D have already been dissected. Now for the groups that offer most intrigue for Australia, first the one we’re a part of, followed by the one that contains a potential second round opponent, fingers crossed.

Group F – Lessening the expectation is Australia’s best bet

CAN the Socceroos mix it in this elite company? That’s the million dollar question. On their showings against Uruguay in Sydney and Greece in Melbourne, they can. On their showings against Holland and Liechtenstein in Europe, they will struggle. Which Socceroos will turn up? As I wrote following the impressive showing against Greece, it’s one thing to control games at home, another to do it on foreign shores. That’s the biggest concern, can our boys deal with eyes of world watching? Some players rise, some struggle, but in their corner they have one of the most experienced chess-men around. Australia is a newcomer at level (’74 aside) and our best bet is to lessen the expectation, to adopt the underdog role Australia plays so well. The problem is that the name Hiddink alone creates expectation and hope that Australia can achieve something at this level. For me, the Socceroos will have been successful if they make a positive impression, regardless of whether that takes us out of a tough group containing Brazil, the emerging neighbour Japan and tough Croatia. Lets face it, it is one of the three toughest groups (along with E and C) and Australia will have achieved a great deal if it is playing well in it, and that means looking comfortable at the back, controlling the opposition for parts of the game in midfield and creating and taking chances in the front third. The other issue exposed by Holland was a lack of class depth. If the Socceroos are to make an impression, a fit and firing Kewell and Cahill are crucial, particularly against a Japan side said to have deficiencies out wide and in dealing with crosses. Beyond a first 11 of Schwarzer/Kalac; Emerton, Moore, Neill, Chipperfield; Culina, Grella; Kewell, Cahill, Bresciano; Viduka, there are few game-breaking options for Hiddink. Aloisi and Skoko offer genuine first 11 alternatives, while Kennedy and Thompson can expect to see some minutes depending on whether Hiddink needs a late aerial/physical threat or an injection of pace and trickery. More consistency is expected from Sterjovski, who, after impressing against Greece has failed to take his opportunities against Holland and Liechtenstein, while Popovic and Lazaridis appear past their best. To make a genuine impression, the Socceroos need consistency from their core group of 13 or 14 players and the likes of Grella, Culina and Bresciano to emerge as genuine world class players. It’s not only the Socceroos presence which excites about Group F. Obviously the world will watching the samba kings and whether the likes of Ronaldinho, Kaka and Adriano can handle the expectation and illuminate this tournament. One of the intriguing aspects will be just how effective the two fullbacks Cafu and Carlos are. Is their best behind them? Or will the fact they can’t get as forward as they once did work in their favour defensively, providing the steel which these days is so necessary to win tournaments. This Croatian team isn’t the one that made the semi finals at France ’98, but they will be hard to beat and offer excitement through the likes of Niko Krancjar and Ivan Klasnic, while Japan will look to play a quick passing game full of movement and flair, and the prospect of seeing Nakamura and Nakata in midfield is exciting. If Australia’s can crowd and dominate the Japanese and Croatian midfields, there is every hope they can get out of this seemingly tough group.
Crucial clash? For Australia it’s undoubtedly the first, against Japan in a couple of days. Lose and there’s little hope of a second round, win and the destiny could be in Australia’s hands come the final game against Croatia. If the Croats take anything off Brazil in their opener, then life becomes that much tougher for the Socceroos.
Upset potential? Let’s hope so. Brazil will do well not to underestimate any of its opponents. Japan and Croatia will be disappointed if they don’t make the second round, but for Australia it would be an incredible achievement. Hiddink, who has already made the impossible possible by qualifying, would
Most looking forward to seeing? Finally, the Socceroos at a World Cup. Does it get any better? Let’s enjoy the ride.

Group E – Action everywhere, a group set to thrill and excite

ONE of the three stand-out groups along with C and F, it features European powerhouses Italy and the Czech Republic, a very good USA and Africa’s great underachiever Ghana, finally at its first World Cup. USA will probably feel the hardest done by, a team that has been rapidly improving since hosting the World Cup in 2004. Last time round it made the quarter-finals after a brilliant display against Portugal, full of pace, athleticism, width and surprisingly good technique and coaching. Four years on an all those ingredients remain, with the addition of exciting youngsters like Eddie Johnson. The difference this time around is a group that contains world number two Czech Republic, semi finalists at Euro 2004, Italy, cleverly rebuilt over the past two years by Marcelo Lippi, and a Ghana side with one of the best midfields around. The Czechs pack class, togetherness (a vital ingredient for any would-be world champions) and are led by veteran Karel Bruckner, loved by his nation and players. Nevded, driving from the midfield, is the jewel, but there are others – Cech, Rosicky, Koller, Ujfalusi and Jankolovski. Their inspiration however, could be the ageless Poborsky, driving and penetrating down the right, still one of the world’s best wide men. While there are question marks over whether Nedved, Poborsky and Koller can sustain it for a month, at the very least we’ll be guaranteed technical and free-flowing football. The Azzuri meanwhile are more cagey and tactical, relying on a strong but aging defence, but there are signs, with the emergence of Fiorentina striker Luca Toni and Roma’s attacking midfielder Daniele de Rossi, that they might be able to entertain and succeed. The prospect of seeing them link up with Totti is intriguing. But the Italians, Czechs and America will do well not to underestimate a well coached Ghana that contains a hot trio in midfield – Essien, Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah. The latter two have an Italian connection, making game one fascinating. Add Sammy Kuffor and strikers Matthew Amoah and Asamoah Gyan, and the Black Stars could make up for some lost time.
Crucial clash? In a hot group, every game will be worth watching, but the final match between Italy and the Czechs, on June 22, could decide who tops the group and avoids a potential second round date with Brazil.
Upset potential? Very strong, but if the USA and Ghana don’t take anything from their first games, against the Czechs and Italy respectively, then it’s unlikely they will progress.
Most looking forward to seeing? Just how good are de Rossi and Toni and are they good enough to take Italy all the way? Has Poborsky still got it and can the Czechs conquer the injury concerns over Nedved and Koller? Blessed with good teams, have Bruce Arena and Ratomir Dujkovic got the tactical smarts to outwit Lippi and Bruckner? Everything about the group spells potential, don’t take your eyes off.

Off to Germany now, but The Round Ball Analyst will bring you a first post from Frankfurt in the next couple of days, including a preview of the remaining groups, G and H, as well as a look at the vital Socceroos v Japan game from Kaiserslautern.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

World Cup Previews continued - Groups C and D

A couple of days ago I previewed Groups A and B, two that appear fairly straight forward. The action will certainly hot up into today's featured groups, particulalrly group C.

Group C – Quality everywhere you look

ARGUABLY the toughest group of the lot, the two teams that miss out from Holland, Argentina, Serbia & Montenegro and the Ivory Coast would be entitled to feel hard done. The world’s third (Holland) and ninth (Argentina) ranked teams, Europe’s best defensive team in the qualifiers (Serbia & Montenegro conceded on one goal in 10 games) and a finalist at the most recent African Nations Cup make this the most cut-throat of groups, full of quality and intrigue. For the two favourites, Holland and Argentina, they won’t have time to build themselves into the tournament, it’ll be all systems go from their opening games, against Serbia and Ivory Coast respectively. By the time they clash in a mouth-watering final group game on June 21 at Frankfurt, both could need a result to get through, and whoever tops the group will take some real confidence and form into the knock-outs. Holland, as we saw against the Socceroos are young side blessed blistering pace and excellent individual technique. Marco van Basten has done a wonderful rebuilding job, taking his team through a tough qualifying phase undefeated, no small feat in a group that featured the Czech Republic. No longer do we see veterans like Seedorf, Davids, Makaay, Stam, Bergkamp and Reiziger, replaced by a new breed, the likes of Robben, van Persie, Sneijder, van der Vaart, Kuijt and Babel. The prospect of seeing whether these players can do what their predecessors couldn’t – win the World Cup - excites, but you sense that much could depend on how the defence, together for the first time in a major champion, copes. With an attack likely to create the chances, the central defensive pair of Ooijer and Mathijsen, along with the emerging manager in van Basten, could be the keys. Argentina also have a similar template to Holland, relying on pace and width to break down defences. Just how spoilt is the astute Jose Peckerman? Messi and Tevez are two of the emerging world superstars, quick and technically superb, but the support cast isn’t bad either – Riqueleme, Saviola, Aimar, Crespo and two exciting youngsters in Rodrigo Palacio and Lucho Gonzalez. So many small and nibble players one can only expect Argentina to play an up tempo ball-on-ground style, which both Serbia and Ivory Coast will attempt to upset with a physical style of game. Serbia particularly offers major intrigue, relying on a disciplined and organised back four of Gavrancic, Krastajic, Vidic and Dragutinovic, the potency of Stankovic and Kezman in attack and the clever work of manager Ilija Petkovic. They will sit back and try and frustrate both Holland and Argentina, relying on the counterattack. Watching these sides try and break them down should be fascinating. Ivory Coast also uses a physical game, relying on the power and goals of Drogba up front and the experience of Kolo Toure at the back, but Henri Michel has moulded a team that can also play. Had they been in an easier group, an upset or two may have been possible.
Crucial clash? The final game between Holland and Argentina on June 21 could obviously decide who tops the group, but such is the quality in this group that every game is like a mini final.
Upset potential? Huge. Argentina and Holland might be favorites, but Serbia will make life very tough and could ‘do a Greece’ and defend their way deep into tournament. Ivory Coast also have the quality to spring a surprise, but a lack of experience means it’s hard to see them getting out of this group.
Most looking forward to seeing? Everything about this group. Dirk Kuijt has been scoring over 20 goals a season for the past three years for Feyenoord and is one of the most sort after strikers around, but he might have to play second fiddle to van Nistelrooy, who looks up for this. Messi and Tevez could be anything. Is this their time? Who has the patience and quality to break down the Serbian defence? Will Drogba cause headaches for the Dutch and Argentine rearguards? Or will some silly mistakes and ill discipline bring about Ivory Coast’s demise?

Group D – Portugal moving towards bigger and better things

PORTUGAL, led by Big Phil Scolari and coming off a second place at Euro 2004, appear to be the stand out and could romp through a group containing Mexico, Iran and Angola, which could then provide the confidence for a serious assault on the title. Finally the nation that has underachieved has rid itself of the so-called ‘golden generation’ from the 1991 world youth championship, which failed to ever achieve anything at senior level, other than gaining a reputation for surrounding the referee. The icebreaker was Scolari. Out went the old, in came the new, a generation of winners, many graduates of the Porto Champions League success under Mourinho. The likes of Deco, Carvalho, Ferreira, Costinha and Maniche form the backbone of a side that, when mixed with the pace and guile of Figo, Ronaldo and Simao and the finishing of Pauleta, could go one step further than ’04. Much could depend on how well they replace injured Andrade in central defence. If Meira does well, keeper Ricardo is mistake-free and Pauleta keeps bagging the goals, then don’t be surprised to find the Portuguese alive at the business end. Their biggest test should be Mexico, one the world football’s biggest improvers over the past decade, but an improving Iran will be no pushover either. This group isn’t the most physical and should suit the smaller Mexicans, who will have time to string their passes. Coach La Volpe has been under fire for leaving out Blanco, followed by a couple of recent losses, but is hoping an experienced squad containing the likes of Marquez, Borgetti, Pardo, Morales and 37 year old Claudio Suarez can pull them through. Their opening battle with Iran could prove decisive and they would do well not to underestimate a team with a strong German connection. Mahdavikia, Karimi and Daei are the veterans, supported by some emerging talents like Hashemian and Nekounam, both prominent in the qualifiers. Less in known and expected of Angola, and it appears they won’t have the quality to do to their former Portuguese rulers what Senegal did to France four years ago. At the very least they should unearth a couple of eye-catching performers.
Crucial clash? Mexico’s opening clash with Iran should decide who progresses along with Portugal.
Upset potential? With Angola not expected to win a game, Iran, well coached by Croatian Branko Ivankovic, could well spring a surprise if underestimated by seeded Mexico or Portugal.
Most looking forward to seeing? The Portuguese midfield is hot the trot, the names just flow - Figo, Deco, Ronaldo, Simao, Maniche, Tiago, Petit, Costinha, Boa Morte and Viana - but the most intriguing aspect is whether Pauleta can score regularly, particularly in the knockouts. He hasn't produced it at past tournaments, but if he gets five or six, not only will he go close to winning the golden boot, but Portugal will go a long way. Also interested is whether Mexico can continue playing their attractive and effective passing game, or whether Ivankovic has some tactical tricks up his sleeve for Iran. Expect to see a few go past Angola’s keeper Ricardo.

Stay tuned for more group previews, including Australia's Group F, and post a comment if you have any thoughts on groups C and D.

Monday, June 05, 2006

World Cup Previews - Groups A and B

Group A – The host gets lucky with the draw

NO this isn’t the Germany of the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ’90s, the team that dominated world football thanks the likes of Beckenbauer, Schumacher, Muller, Matthaeus, Littbarski, Voeller, Rummenigge and Klinsmann, but, as always, you write them off at your own peril. A stuttering preparation, dominated by question marks over whether Klinsmann would spend more time at home, his young defence and who would win the battle of the keepers (deservedly won by Lehmann after a stellar season with Arsenal), will likely be forgotten by the time they notch up their first win against Costa Rica on Friday. Klinsmann has rebuilt since Euro 2004, introducing youngsters like Podolski, Hanke, Huth and Mertesacker and mixing them with experienced players like Klose, Ballack, Frings, Schneider and recently recalled defender Jens Nowotny, drafted in to sure up a leaky defence. Ballack is the undoubted star, but who will emerge from the pack to join him? By virtue of a soft draw and the fact they should be too physically imposing for their opposition, the host should progress comfortably to the second round, the big issue being who will join them? There is little between the likes of Poland, Ecuador and Costa Rica, so for one of them it will be major achievement to get to the final 16. Neighbours Poland had big wraps on them last time round and failed, due to lack of pace and quality. It appears to be their Achilles heel again, and their warm up form has been patchy. Ditto Ecuador and Costa Rica, two teams made up largely of home based players who do well at home, not so well on the road. Ecuador was undefeated at home at altitude in the qualifiers, but managed just one win on the road, against last placed Bolivia. Neither of the three convince, so it will almost be a case of last man standing.
Crucial fixture? Poland v Ecuador on day 1 in Gelsenkirchen. A result either way could decide who goes through with Germany.
Upset potential? Fairly limited, although Ecuador has the technical players to make an impression and Klinsmann is untried at this level, so how will he handle things tactically?
Most looking forward to seeing? Who emerges from the pack to join Ballack as a German star - Podolski, Schweinsteiger, Hanke or one of the young defenders?

Group B – England also get a fairly soft group

THIS time it’s England who is the recipient of a favourable draw. The big test, as it always seems to be for England, is Sweden, who are joined by South America’s Paraguay and Dwight Yorke’s Trinidad & Tobago, who would appear to be out of their depth. In midfielders Lampard and Gerrard, England have the class to do well, but winning it is a massive step, for which they’d need a fit and firing Rooney. With a tight defence, there’s little doubt they should get through the group comfortably, but England traditionally struggle against teams who pass the ball well, like Romania in 2000, Brazil in 2002 and Portugal in 2004, and while Paraguay aren’t in that class, they could ask a few questions of England in the opening game. Sweden could offer some problems, but with the poor form this season of Ibrahimovic and the injury concerns for Ljungberg, they would need Wilhelmsson and Larsson firing to do well. Paraguay have also had some mixed warm up results, and like Ecuador, weren’t overly convincing on the road in the qualifiers, and might struggle to make it a hat-trick of second round appearances.
Crucial fixture? June 15, Sweden vs Paraguay in Berlin, should be a close game, potentially deciding who goes through with England.
Upset potential? Again slim, the Soca Warriors don’t have the quality, having lost to Wales, Slovenia and the Czechs in the past week or so. It would be a major major shock if it wasn’t England and one other.
Most looking forward to seeing? Much of the attention will be around whether Gerrard, Lampard, Beckham and Cole can gel in midfield, but equally as interesting will be how much time Paraguayan midfielders Dos Santos and Barreto get as both were part of the team that finished second at the 2004 Olympics. For A-League fans, how will Yorke go? And can Ibrahimovic rediscover his goal-scoring touch?

What do you make of these two groups? Will Germany and England romp through them? Post a comment and do revisit tomorrow, where The Round Ball Analyst will take you through two of the hot groups, C and D.

Pleasing result, but performance gives Guus plenty to ponder

Socceroos vs Holland wrap

IF the World Cup warms ups are about performance ahead of result, than last nights (Australian time) 1-1 draw at Holland will pose a few questions for Guus Hiddink and Co. ahead of our opener with Japan on June 12.

Skipper Mark Viduka and others spoke in the lead up about this game being a real test of where the Socceroos stood heading into the showpiece.

The obvious answer after this performance is that there is still a significant gap to close between the Socceroos and the truly top teams like Holland, not really surprising when you look at the respective rankings, but disappointing after such an accomplished display against Greece.

One all it ended, but had it not been from some brilliant stops from Mark Schwarzer and some wasteful finishing from Johnny Heitinga, it could have so easily been four or five for the Dutch.

While Hiddink attempted to put a positive spin on the performance after the match, sighting a degree of contentment with his sides tactical showing, deep down he will have been a little disappointed his unit couldn’t compete more evenly with the Dutch, particularly on a technical level.

Quite simply the Dutch controlled the match, never allowing Australia to build any passing momentum. It was almost an exact replica of the Greece game, only in reverse.

What was so impressive about Marco Van Basten’s side was not only their blistering and in-sync work with the ball, but also the way they pressed the Socceroos all over the pitch, never allowing Australia to breath.

Every time an Australian defender or deep central midfielder had the ball, they were faced by two or three charging orange shirts, forcing the Socceroos into error as they rushed to play the ball forward.

When it did get to the front quartet of Viduka, Sterjovski, Bresciano and Culina, too often it failed to stay up there. Only Viduka was able to consistently hold off his two central defenders, Ooijer and Mathijsen, showing the requisite strength and technique required to compete at this high level.

Perhaps is was tough training schedule over the past couple of weeks, or the increased expectation after the Greek showing, but for whatever reason, Australia were unable to keep the ball and struggled to place enough pressure on Holland when they had it.

The Dutch, all comfortable in possession, particularly under pressure, initially pinned Australia back with their two wide men, Robben and van Persie, stretching both Emerton and Chipperfield respectively and creating space in the middle for the impressive Sneijder to string his passes, bring van Nistolrooy into the game and allow Cocu and van Bommel to drive from midfield.

If van Persie wasn’t attacking on the outside, he would drop off the backline and clip some delightful balls into the path of the driving central midfielders, who were shaking off the likes of Grella and Wilkshire far too comfortably.

If Hiddink had experimented by giving Wilkshire an opportunity alongside Grella and shifting Culina further up the pitch, in the attacking midfielder role, it clearly hadn’t worked, our central trio outplayed by Sneijder, Cocu and van Bommel.

It wasn’t till the second half, with a number of forced substitutions and adjustments in the centre of the park that Australia started to get into the game.

One was the injury to Sneijder. Holland and fans of the World Cup can only hope it isn’t a serious one, such was the artistry of his work. The other was the send off of Wilkshire. With half an hour left, it forced Culina deeper, alongside Grella, as the Socceroos moved to a more narrow 4-2-2-1, with Cahill driving from the left and Thompson from the right in support of a busy and strong John Aloisi.

Suddenly the Socceroos looked more of a threat with 10 men then they had with their full quota.

If Sterjovski had played himself into the managers mind with a busy performance against Greece, then this is one he’ll want to forget, but he wasn’t the only one having an off day, joined by Grella, Culina, Emerton, Wilkshire and the central defensive duo of Moore and Neill.

Only Schwarzer, Viduka, Chipperfield and the second half substitutes Cahill, Aloisi and Thompson can be satisfied with their contributions.

The pleasing thing, no doubt, was that the team did what Australians do best, hang in there and fight, forcing a result against high quality opposition. If they can do that over the next three weeks, then they’ll have gone some way to qualifying for the second round.

In the meantime, it gives Hiddink and his players more work to do, and, if it lowers expectations a touch, that mightn’t be a bad thing altogether.

What were your thoughts on the Socceroos performance? Did the players look tired, where they simply outclassed, or did Guus get a few things wrong? Post a comment.