Wednesday, March 26, 2008

After the pain comes the point

2010 world cup qualifier, matchday 2, China 0 v Australia 0

IF AUSTRALIA'S move into the Asian confederation 51 months ago promised high pressure, competitive and crucial games, often, then that's exactly what our first world cup qualifier on the road, in Asia, delivered.

Make no mistake, this evening's scoreless draw in Kunming was a fantastic result for the Socceroos, especially after all the adversity that has struck Pim Verbeek and his team over the past week or so.

Elevated 1900 metres above sea-level, bereft of half a team of certain starters and at least the same amount of fringe starters, restricted to a two day preperation, struck down by a stomach bug on the eve of the game, losing one of only two strikers 10 minutes into the match, coping a penalty with three minutes left, the miracle is the Socceroos came out of it with a precious point that could prove so crucial in the final wash-up of this phase of qualifiers.

Two games, a win at home, a draw away, four points, two clean sheets; so far so beautiful for Verbeek and his men, even with all the logistical hurdles since he was belatedly made manager.

Throughout it he has been a model of calm and composure, keeping his inner-most thoughts close to home and invariably pulling the right moves.

Now Australia is on-side, and the Australian football establishment is warming to him mojo, slowly but surely.

Little doubt his players have been on board since day one, and this was another outstanding performance from a bunch of men who not only played with the pride that is trademark of the green and gold, but with the brains we haven't always associated with Australian footballers.

This is why a man of Verbeek's football know-how is critical to a nation still learning to compete consistently at this level.

Here he pulled yet an another surprise, starting with a back five and playing with two recognised holding midfielders in Grella and Valeri, three if you add the slightly more advanced Culina, five if you factor in the two front-men, Bresciano and a combination of Thompson and Holman.

As Verbeek point-out post match, the workrate of the front three was incredible. They were on the pitch as much to defend as they were to attack.

It was a team built to defend, sustain possession, keep the ball on the deck and press sporadically. No Viduka, no Aloisi, no Kennedy and no Djite, there was no natural holding target up top, so mobility became the modus operandi.

The logic behind the back three was explained pre-match; he was expecting from China many long balls, thus many second balls, thus hoping the numbers at the back would be enough pick up the second balls. No doubt the fact both Carney and Wilkshire aren't natural fullbacks (Carney looked particualrly fallible early on) also played a part in the thought-process.

It all made sense.

More importantly, it all worked, helped in no small part by the conservative approach of the hosts, who basically cancelled out of the Socceroos with a similar template; defend first, attack second.

Watching it, I couldn't help but think Petrovic was playing for second in the group and banking on knocking off Iraq at home (after drawing away on matchday 1) and hoping the Socceroos will knock off the Asian champions twice. Who knows, that might be exactly how it plays out, but Petrovic mightn't be around to fulfill it.

If the opposition are already thinking about second place, than Verbeek and his men have inflicted an early psychological blow.

Here they took control early, knocking the ball around at the back, intelligently moving it through the twin Italian screeners, 'Vinnie and mini-Vinnie'. Most of the passing was very easy on the eye, the occasional ball over-hit as it invariably took-off in the high-altitude.

Problem was there was no-one at the pointy end to keep it. The idea was to pinch something, and it so nearly happened when Holman went around Feng Xiaoting (#4) and squared it for Bresciano, who was brilliantly denied by the alert Zeng Lei.

Australia was in control, but suddenly, about 10 minutes before the break, China had a good period, the skipper Zheng Zhi (#10) then the lively Zhu Ting (#13) mis-hitting two of those second ball chances Verbeek had spoken of before the game. China's reputation for melting in front of goal was intact.

After the break, the Socceroos remained in control and it wasn't until pacey striker Qu Bo (#11) was introduced for Han Peng (#9) with 15 minutes left that China started to get in among things.

First he volleyed another one of those second balls, forcing Schwarzer to get down quickly. A few minutes later the two were back at it, Schwarzer hesitating as he came out for a long ball and paying a big price.

UAE referee Al Saedi, who had earlier allowed Sun Jihai (#17) to get away with a terrible two-footed lunge on Wilkshire, punished Schwarzer for his hesitation and all the Socceroos hard work looked like it was for nothing. As the keeper said afterwards, to lose would have been a "disaster", a massive mental blow.

Anyway, the big man stayed up for as long as possible, left his feet behind and got lucky, the ball falling into his arms.

Could the Roos punish the host and apply the knock-out? Almost. Deep into injury time Culina found Bresciano in space, inside the box, a rarity. Carney, who had started the attack, lumbered into the box and should have been on the end of it, but left wingback, Sun Xiang (#3), one of the host's best, came from nowhere and applied enough pressure.

0-0 it ended, a fair result.

The Socceroos had many heros, but Jade North continued his graduation into a fully-fledged Roo with a composed display. Ditto Valeri and Holman, who also proved they can do the job required. Valeri was a monster in defence and very constructive on the ball, while Holman, confidence up thanks his recent goals in the Eredivise, worked and probed and looked Australia's most likely.

Alongside Valeri, Grella proved he can play in Asia. Perhaps it was the more coolish temperatures at 1900 metres.

There was hardly a poor Australian player, and they can now focus on a double-header against Iraq which should go a long way to deciding top spot, especially if the Iraqis do the job in Qatar tomorrow morning.

By then, who knows who will be in the Socceroos mix, but with Pim around, pulling the strings, it's looking ok. Bravo.


Blogger pippinu said...

Excellent summation - all points are spot on and well made. I can't think of anything to contradict or too much to add.

While Australia probably created the two best chances of the game, it has to be said that China had a couple of decent chances in each half, and more composed players would have put one of those away, but in the end they only forced the Schwatter to make one regulation save.

The formation and tactics were perfect by Pim under the circumstances. Holman has to be given credit for running his guts out and making a nuisance of himself in what was always going to be a largely thankless task.

At times Australia resembled a 3-6-1, with both Bresh and Culina starting well deep, and if I'm not mistaken, I'm sure I spotted Holman receiving passes well inside our own half!

Some of the passing between Grella, Valeri and Culina was as good as any passing we have ever seen in the gold shirt, and it was good to see the patience in maintaining possession and a willingness to go back to the central defenders, once, twice even three times, to force the Chinese to move up the pitch a bit and release some space behind them (which was a rare luxury for much of the game). The space between the Chinese third and the half way line was as dense as I can recall seeing in any game.

Occasionally, after a dozen passes backwards and forwards, we would crack and send a long one down the channel for Holman to chase which was never going to be productive. But it is a small indicator of the concentration and discipline required to conduct a game plan that might appear superficially simple to the casual observer.

Thu. Mar. 27, 09:54:00 am AEDT  
Blogger Mike Salter said...

I think you're being very kind, Tony.

The general strategy early on worked well, and we managed to conserve our energy effectively. But there were lots of loose passes as the game wore on, and you always knew that if the Chinese nicked one then that would probably be it. At least one sub was needed.

And on a different note, I thought Pim would eventually try to do something to counteract that simple ball-into-the-wide channels tactic that gave the Chinese so much possession in our third.

Ultimately a good result for us, but it was just one weakly-struck penalty away from being a poor one.

Thu. Mar. 27, 02:38:00 pm AEDT  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

...Excellent summation - all points are spot on and well made. I can't think of anything to contradict or too much to add...

Thanks Pips, just noticed you did a running commentary, good stuff...good fun, isn't it, and amazing how it just flows.

...But it is a small indicator of the concentration and discipline required to conduct a game plan...

Just love the detail.

...I think you're being very kind, Tony....

Thanks for the comment Mike...gonna agree to disagree on this one. I thought we were excellent, adjusted our game plan well with all that was going on before the game (Verbeek didnt panic when he had every right to)and then implemented it to a tee...great to see the boys using their brains..

Yes we got lucky thanks the Jiayi, but what team doesn't get lucky during a football match? Luck is a massive part of the game, but the smarter teams generally get luckier.

With about 10 to go, I too was wondering whether we'd see a sub, but had some similar thoughts to the ones John Kosmina expressed on TF tonight, ie. you make the sub in that situations (where the forward line is functioning well as a defensive unit) and you run the risk of upsetting whats working.

....And on a different note, I thought Pim would eventually try to do something to counteract that simple ball-into-the-wide channels tactic that gave the Chinese so much possession in our third....

In the 2nd half I found Wilkshire was caught out a couple of times a little too high up the pitch (ie. he wasnt in touch with North), isolating North 1 v 1. On one occasion Peng almost got on the end of a good cross.

But overall, for me, esp given the context, very hard to fault Pim on too much.

Thu. Mar. 27, 10:52:00 pm AEDT  
Blogger pippinu said...

Good fun? I've just responded to someone saying it's hard yakka! I think I'll just sit back and enjoy from now on!

I am noticing around various forums that this game has really polarised Australian fans, amongst those who are pleased with the overall effort (under difficult circumstances) and those who feel that Australia should have gone for the jugular more.

In defence of the latter, it is true that China managed to get behind Australia probaly more often than the other way round, and that may have irked many.

On the other hand, the tempo and pattern of the game suited us on the day, and the penalty aside, Australia created an excellent chance in each half. That's probably all Pim would have banked on to perhaps walk away with a 0-1 victory, but clearly being happy with a nil-all result.

But these things have to be viewed in context. It's a long campaign, even in games we might be destined to win, we will encounter difficulties, and how we negotiate those difficulties are the key. That's what we've achieved this time around, and all things being equal, we have set ourselves up to top the group - and ultimately that's how we will judge this preliminary phase (recalling that there is another group phase to negotiate after this one).

Fri. Mar. 28, 09:23:00 am AEDT  
Anonymous dhd said...

Enjoyed the intelligent review, and chatter amongst you bloggers.

I was frustrated at the time but by the next morning was more appreciative of the result under very difficult circumstances.

Here endeth the intelligence.

I wonder, what can we Australians offer opposition teams in the way of a theatre to test the physical constitution of their players? Being a f-ing long way from anywhere is a good start, but surely we can improve on this.

Our easiest option is to make life difficult for european teams and play in the great sandy desert, or on a gravel pitch at Broken Hill, but the problem is that our 1st choice players live and play in europe too, so it backfires. But damn-it, there must be something...

Obviously heat and dry aren't going to phase many of our Asian opponents, so distance seems the only factor we can play with. Macquarie Island is an Australian Territory is it not? we could build a pitch there. Or perhaps we could employ Howard era subtlety and have teams enjoy their practice sessions from behind the razorwire at Villawood.

I'm not saying I've got all the answers...

The only thing i found missing from the account was the leniency of the Ref on what seemed to be some heavy fouls. On Thompson, on Wilkshire, and then the AFL inspired square-up from Valeri on Sun Jihai.

Fri. Mar. 28, 12:11:00 pm AEDT  
Blogger pippinu said...

not wanting to steal Tony's thunder or anything, but you're query about what we can do to make things difficult for the opposition reminds me of our WC qualifier against Scotland in October 1985 at Olympic Park, Melbourne (I was there). I distinctly recall Frank Arok (then coach) suggesting that the game should be played in Darwin (very much in keeping with the theme you have suggested).

Instead, the Olympic Park pitch was described as looking like a "billiard table", and it was a mild evening, absolutely perfect for football - we could not have made things any easier for the Scots! (we were down 2-0 following our away leg).

History shows that we managed a credible 0-0 result and missed out (more disappointment was to follow in the coming decades).

I can recall that the ASF was dismissive of Frank's suggestion at the time, but having aged and become cranky over the years, I now see that there was great merit in Frank's idea. We only have to witness the gamesmanship of the Uruguayans to know that even former WC winners will leave no stone unturned in trying to qualify for the biggest show on Earth (although on the 2nd occasion we trumped them with our luxury flight).

This may not be politically correct, but I rather enjoyed Valeri's evener-upper.

Fri. Mar. 28, 02:22:00 pm AEDT  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Pippinu, my exact thoughts after reading dhd's comments where "Arok and Darwin"...can't believe you were at the Scot game though...I had vague recollections of it as an 11 first wcq was the Canada penalty shootout in 93...addicited instantly, although 4 years earlier i was desperate for someone to take me to the Israel game at the sfs...

Back to Arok, after the game on Wed night I was explaining to my wife why I thought the 0-0 was such a great result and telling her about the altitude...she asked 'why don't we play our qualifiers in Darwin or at Ayres Rock?' I explained that these days, it would probably suit most of our opponents more than it would our Euroroos.

Reckon our crowds have become more influential and educated of late, so making it as intimidating as possible inside the stadium remains a good bet.

And our professional bunch of players get better and better at getting the job done.

Fri. Mar. 28, 09:36:00 pm AEDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I' m puzzled at the detractors of Pim's and the Socceroos' efforts in Kunming too.

Since reading a few blogs and forums, I'm hypthesising that a lot of the criticism has come from a group, many associated with Sydney FC, who know each other off forum/blog. They share a collective animosity towards the appointment of Pim Verbeek as a coach.

I felt inspired in Kunming, by the sort of tactical performance from Australia our opponents used against us in past epochs. I can't remember the superb midfield combination play and dominant possession our team enjoyed, matched by any Australian performance in the past.

Good wrap.

Sat. Mar. 29, 04:56:00 pm AEDT  

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