Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Air-time for Sarkies and his set-piece specialists

Matchday 6, Group A Olympic Games Qualifier, North Korea 1 v Olyroos 1

Beijing, Beijing, we’re going to Beijing….

JUST over two months ago, after the matchday 2 qualifier against North Korea at Newcastle, I remember asking Graham Arnold why he hadn't started with Bruce Djite. It was a surprise given Djite had been a regular Olyroo starter up until then.

His answer was telling. Arnold spoke not only of Mark Bridge's ability to link with his midfield, but of how he "just had to play Sarkies".

Of course, Arnold was referring to the Adelaide midfielder's ability over the dead ball. We’d all heard about it, and see it in snippets, but in truth, his delivery in two seasons of the A-League hadn’t lived up to the hype.

But ultimately, it was Arnold’s faith in the Sarkies set-piece took the Olyroos all the way to Beijing.

On that occasion Arnold used Sarkies on the left side of his front three. Sarkies had been short of a gallop, but was still good enough to deliver the killer ball, his 50th minute corner perfectly delivered for Mark Milligan to head home at the back post.

That move would prove to be Australia's modus operandi throughout this campaign.

So often, especially in the last two qualifiers, with Arnold’s men unable to break down Iraq and North Korea on the ground, it was the Sarkies/Milligan axis that came to the rescue.

Indeed, this arduous qualification campaign should be remembered not only for the work of the Twin Pillars at the back (Milligan and Leijer), but for Australia’s ability to dominate the slighter Asian teams, especially at the set-piece.

On Saturday, in the crunch Iraqi game, Sarkies provided both goals, the first falling to Leijer after a bit a scraps in the box, the second characteristically thumped home by the skipper.

And again tonight, with the frustration growing, time running out and Australia struggling badly on the pitch, in the cold and in all the thirds (front, back and middle), it was the Sarkies, Milligan and Leijer show, the former flighting one to the back post for Milligan to head across the goal for Leijer to bundle across the line, with whatever he could get in the way.

Whoever’s goal it was, and however ugly it was, it was b!oody beautiful and maintains Australia’s proud record of competing at the Olympic Games. That’s six on the spin and counting.

As expected though, this had been the most difficult of games, but even then, few would have expected Australia to have to come from behind.

The Olyroos clearly struggled with the artificial ground and weren’t prepared for a North Korea game plan which seemed hell bent on turning around the Aussies with a direct over the top approach.

On the ball, the Olyroos couldn’t get control, while off it, they appeared to second guess their own movement.

The hosts profited, catching out Milligan with an early long one. The Olyroos had conceded their first of the third qualification phase. How would they respond?

In truth, it wasn’t good, as the DPR continued to threaten, both through the middle and out wide, while the Olyroos, despite trying to build up patiently, could barely string a couple of passes.

Leigh Broxham, playing in Stuart Musalik’s holding role, was the biggest struggler, replaced by Nathan Burns after 37 minutes. Much maligned for his work at the Asian Cup, it was great to see Arnold prepared to alter something that wasn’t working, so early.

In truth, it didn’t make a huge difference. Later, the introduction of Nick Ward into the holding role did.

Australia, struggling to get Troisi, Bridge and Vidosic into the game, were second best throughout, but this squad has plenty of winners and determination, none better than the two central defenders.

A couple of days ago I wrote that it won’t be long before they’re both together at the heart of the Socceroos defence. Truth be told, it shouldn’t be long before they’re both permanent fixtures at a high level in Europe.

Leijer is already at Fulham and should soon be a starter, while Milligan will captain his country at senior level soon enough.

Spare a congratulatory thought also for Rob Baan, who from all reports did some wonderful work with these guys early (indeed, you could argue they've not been as fluent in the front third the past couple of games), and both Musalik and Djite, such key figures in the early going.

This has been a wonderful campaign by what appears to be a wonderful squad, and, with drug dramas dominating too many other Olympic sports, let’s hope these guys get plenty of air time in Beijing.

Air-time. Both on or screens and over the dead-ball.


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