Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Opportunities abound on the road to Asia

WHILE there has been discontent in some quarters about the lack of regular first team players - the likes of Viduka, Schwarzer, Bresciano, Kewell, Grella, Skoko, Cahill, Aloisi and Chipperfield - in Graham Arnold's squad for the Uruguay friendly on Saturday, there is little doubt in this correspondent's mind it offers excitement, opportunities and in insight into the make-up of the squad for the Asia Cup and beyond. The manager has hinted that there are at least six spots open in his Asia Cup 23, so here I cast an eye over Arnold's 23 man squad for Uruguay with an eye towards July.

Daniel Allsopp (Melbourne Victory); thoroughly deserves his chance after an exceptional A-League season. Would be great to see him get a bit of time in the national set-up to find out if he can cut it at this level. With the big man Viduka dropping hints about a premature retirement, there are opportunities up front, particularly for a striker with presence. With the likes of Kennedy and Aloisi absent and McDonald failing to grasp his chances to date, this is a massive opportunity for Allsopp. I certainly hope he grabs it.

Michael Beauchamp (Nurnberg); looking nervy in his early green and gold days, that was largely down to a lack of game time at Nurnberg. Now a first team fixture, and an adaptable one at that, the confidence is up and, given the retirements of Vidmar and Popovic and the dipping form of Moore, he appears set to stake a place to become a first team regular for country. Still feel his best work is in the man-marking role, as he demonstrated in the German Cup semi final when he nullified the opposition's man playmaker.

Mark Bridge (Newcastle Jets); another stand-out in season two of the A-league, this kid showed wonderful adaptability under Gary van Egmond, looking equally at home in any of four forward roles, up top, wide left or right, or in behind the front man. Blessed with brilliant dribbling ability and neat foot-work he has a massive future if he continues to work hard. If Arnold is looking for a couple of bolters for his Asia Cup squad, Bridge might be in the mix, particularly as we aren't exactly blessed with strikers.

Nick Carle (Newcastle Jets); the ‘keep-ball merchant’ of the national competition, it was wonderful to watch Newcastle build its play through him. There is no reason why he can’t fulfill the same role with the national team, in behind the main striker and in front of the likes of Grella and Culina. Main problem is that this is the same space that the likes of Cahill and Holman like to forage. Carle’s other problem is that he isn’t really suited to prefered Socceroos formation which already has Viduka as the focal point in attack. However, a player of this much ability would be a fixture in most national set-ups, if only for the fact he can conjure up an opening with one moment of inspiration.

David Carney (Sydney FC); after an injury riddled second season of the A-league, it appears Branko Culina is now getting Carney back to his first season best, where he was a menace driving infield from the right. Now Culina is using him on the left, where many feel he is best suited, and there is no reason why he can’t become a permanent Socceroos back-up for the likes of Kewell and Bresciano, but more work is needed on his fitness and work without the ball or the likes of Lucas Pantelis will soon surpass him.

Simon Colosimo (Sivasspor); a decent second A-league season in a team that was prepared to play through him was followed by a move to Turkey. Regular football gets him the gig here but he still has plenty to do to get back to days when he was a Socceroos squad regular. There is a queue behind Grella for the holding midfielder role and for me Colosimo remains behind the likes of Milligan, Musalik and, on the evidence of his first hour against China, Valeri.

Jason Culina (PSV); no doubt he’s become a holding midfielder at PSV, but he is not a sitter in the mould of say a Grella, Valeri or Musalik. He still offers plenty of drive and is the perfect compliment to someone like Grella, always willing to lend a hand working back, but equally adept at linking with the front men. The perfect example of modern team player, it would be lovely to see him rediscover some of his goal-getting touch from his early days in Holland.

Brett Emerton (Blackburn); the emergence of Darren Bentley at right midfield at Blackburn has helped Emerton hone his defensive game. Looking more and more comfortable both for club and country, he offers remarkable penetration and drive to go with a greater awareness of what is required of him defensively. What a motor. Wouldn't it be nice though to see him take the next step and increase his efficiency in the final third both as a goal-scorer and creator?

Adam Federici (Reading); burst on the scene with a sparkling shot stopping display in the FA Cup against Man U. But the boy from Huskinsson still has plenty to do to go to the head of the queue to be the permanent no.2 beyond Schwarzer. With Kalac retired, those lining up include Vukovic, Covic, Bolton, Jones, Federici and Michael Petkovic. Massive opportunity of one of them.

Ryan Griffiths (Liaoning); without ever really setting the world on fire, has done enough in the limited game time he's had to stay under Arnold's radar, probably down to a lack of left sided options. But with the likes of Carney, Pantelis and Spagnuolo impressing domestically, Griffiths will need to make strides. Will be lucky to make the Asia Cup 23.

Brett Holman (NEC Nijmegen); a dazzling first half display against China in February was just the latest in series of impressive displays for both club and country. Driving forward from the attacking midfielder/second striker role, he appears to complement Viduka, who can hold the ball up and pick out Holman's runs. Also excellent off the ball on the counter attack, as we witnessed in Shanghai. Felt he was very unlucky to miss out on the World Cup squad and should get his reward with a birth in the Asia 23.

Brad Jones (Middlesbrough); Like Federici, and perhaps moreso given he looks the likely starter, Saturday is a massive chance for Jones to stake a claim as Schwarzer's no. 2. When he spent some time as Middlesbrough's no. 1 over a year ago, his obvious strength was his shot-stopping. However, like most keepers, he appeared to lack authority in commanding his box, preferring the comfort of his line. With the likes of Covic, Petkovic and Bolton failing to convince of late, it's time for a youngster to stand up. Will it be Jones?

Patrick Kisnorbo (Leicester); right in the mix to become Lucas Neill's permanent partner in the centre of defence, and it's about time. Starved under Farina, he decided to establish himself at club level and is now an influential figure at Leicester where combines his leadership and communication skills with a physical presence in the air and calm and pace on the ground. As natural a successor to Moore as we have.

Scott McDonald (Motherwell); fortunate, in my opinion, to still be in the mix, he gets another chance here due to some consistent work in Scotland and a dearth of up-front talent. On the evidence we've seen in the green and gold, he hasn't looked suited to the sole striker role and may indeed be more suited to a two man forward line where he could work alongside say an Allsopp or Thompson, with say a Carle or Holman providing service from behind. While it's mightn't be the way he wants to work in Asia, I sense a front two might be Arnold's best avenue against Uruguay given the players he has available up front. There is no-one in the mould of Viduka in the squad who can play with his back to goal and bring teammates into the game.

Lucas Neill (West Ham); after the glory and pain of the World Cup, it was a season of pain and then glory for the now Hammer. Looking forward to seeing how he works with Kisnorbo and the likely holding midfielder Carl Valeri.

Jade North (Newcastle Jets); seemingly in the squad as a back-up in the full-back areas, his best work this season actually came in central defence. Like Colosimo, appears a little too far down in the pecking order and will likely miss the Asia squad, unless Chipperfield, as muted, stays behind for the birth of a child and Steffanutto fails to make enough of an impression.

Matthew Spiranovic (Nurnberg); ostensibly a central defender, it has been interested seeing him pop up in the fullback role at times at Nurnberg. When he represented the Joeys at the under 17s world cup a couple of years ago, he looked raw, nervous and a little slow. At Nurnberg he has looked comfortable and mature, so looking forward to seeing him get an opportunity against the likes of Estoyanoff. Growing up he was said to be a good user of the ball.

Shane Stefanutto (Lillestrom); decent debut against China gives him a chance to cement a regular gig behind Chipperfield in an area we aren't exactly spolit for choice in. Will be fascinating to see who Arnold uses in the left back area against Uruguay as it will give us some insight into his thinking for the Asia Cup. With Chipperfield a possible no-show, will he plug a gap with the dependable Wilkshire or will he have faith in Stefanutto? It could be a crucial and decisive battle against Carlos Diogo.

Mile Sterjovski (Basel); now a regular in both the squad and first 11, Sterjovski's suits Arnold's preferred three man attack, where he can provide width, support and workrate down the right. But he has shown that he isn't so comfortable through the middle. Wouldn't it be nice to see one of his wicked volleys bulge the net rather than crash against the crossbar?

Archie Thompson (Melbourne Victory); what to do with Archie? Hasn't looked so comfortable on the left side of Arnold's three man attack, he might be more suited to a two man strikeforce alongside his Victory pal Allsopp. But what then of Sterjovski on the right?

Michael Thwaite (Wisla Krakow); fair to say that he is slightly down the pecking order of central defenders behind Kisnorbo and Beauchamp, so it will be fascinating to see if he does get on the pitch on Saturday. Showed his adaptability by playing on the right on debut against Jamaica, so wonder if Arnold will be thinking of him as a potential left-sided option? Unless he gets a chance on Saturday and has a blinder, I think he will miss out on the Asia Cup squad.

Carl Valeri (Grosseto); a green and gold youth team regular, he was outstanding on debut against China, taking to the Grella holding role with the aplomb of some-one who plays it week-in, week-out in Italy. Receiving from the defence, he was able to open up and switch out to the flanks, keeping the ball moving. If he gets his chance on Saturday, has a bit of pressure on him to reproduce it against a higher grade of opposition, but it is another massive opportunity to stake a late claim for Asia. With Milligan already a shoe-in, his chances are limited, but he must keep the pressure on. If he does feature, keep an eye out on how he combines with Neill and Culina.

Luke Wilkshire (FC Twente); Mr Dependable this bloke has become. Whether it's centrally or out wide, he's always available to plug a hole, and on Saturday that might be on the left side of defence/midfield. Reports out of Holland suggest he is relishing his move to Twente, and this will be an opportunity to showcase the improvement it has brought to his game. Like Milligan, his adaptability gets him into the Asia Cup 23.

With all this in mind, here is an early take on what the Asia Cup squad might look like;

Goalkeepers; Schwarzer, two from Bolton/Vukovic/Jones
Defenders; Emerton, Neill, Kisnorbo, Beauchamp, Chipperfield, one from Spiranovic/Thwaites/Stefanutto
Midfielders; Grella, Bresciano, Milligan, Culina, Wilkshire, Cahill, two from Skoko/Valeri/Holman/Carle
Attackers; Sterjovski, Viduka, Kewell, Aloisi, one from Thompson/Allsopp, one from Bridge/Burns


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