Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Miracle worker has all eyes on number two

Australian World Cup saviour Guus Hiddink might this week have announced his decision to coach Russia after the finals - but for now his undivided attention turns to working his second miracle with the Socceroos.

Weeks of speculation linking the in-demand Dutch coach with every managerial position vacant or otherwise ended with Hiddink's inking of a two-year contract with the Russian Football Association. He will reportedly receive AUD$3.2 million per annum in a deal rumoured to have been bankrolled by billionaire Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich such was his popularity with national team bosses. Unlike the Socceroos, Russia failed to qualify for Germany under coach Yuri Semin and were handed a 7-1 hiding by Portugal during a dismal campaign.

Hiddink has also finished his second stint at the helm of PSV Eindhoven after leading them to the Dutch title for consecutive seasons last Sunday. His championship winners signed off in style with a 6-2 thrashing of NAC Breda, the coach's 200th victory during eight years with PSV. With the Dutch giants already eliminated from the Champions League, the match signalled the end of Hiddink's domestic reign.

With the new Aussie Rules season cranking up and the National Rugby League already in full swing, Hiddink's departure has gone unnoticed by all but the footballing fraternity down under. It is a harsh indictment on the man supporters are already lauding as the best-ever Socceroo coach after guiding the Aussies to their first World Cup in 32 years.

In some ways, Hiddink's failure to renew his international contract with Football Federation Australia has provoked a typical response. The Dutchman has somewhat adopted the "no worries, mate" mantra himself during his tenure and his departure is seen as merely the inevitable end of a beautiful relationship - no matter that without him the Socceroos will certainly be a poorer set-up. His decision to step in and help on a part-time basis when the team were in the doldrums will always be remembered as a turning point in Australian football.

Hiddink, of course, is making little of his repatriation to Roman's army at this stage. His work with Russia begins with the Euro 2008 qualifier against Croatia [a nation he'll know plenty about after their Group F encounter with Australia] on September 6. His work preparing the Socceroos for the greatest test in their history starts now.

His first task will be to utilise the final weeks of the European season to assess his stocks. The major leagues play their final round of matches on May 7 with the 23-man playing squads for Germany to be submitted no later than May 15. Of Hiddink's likely squad members, only AC Milan goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac could still be in action in the Champions League final after this deadline.

He will, no doubt, be pleasantly surprised with what he finds. The form of his key armoury is robust with Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell and Everton's player of the month for March Tim Cahill all weighing in with goals of late. Former captain Craig Moore is starting to put his injury nightmare behind him at Newcastle United and remains firmly in Hiddink's thoughts for the opener against Japan. Meanwhile, influential midfielder Josip Skoko - who captained the Socceroos in February's Asian Cup qualification win in Bahrain - is blossoming in a loan spell at Stoke City.

The coach's major dilemma remains the balance of his defence. Stalwarts Tonys Vidmar and Popovic continue to struggle with injuries or a lack of match practice. Depending on which way you look at it, it might have been a positive factor that Vidmar's rib injury meant he didn't feature in the NAC side which capitulated against PSV last weekend. He and Popovic are being pushed hard by Moore, recently appointed FC Thun captain Ljubo Milicevic and even A-League high-flyer Michael Beauchamp for a starting spot.

After submitting his final 23, Hiddink then looks forward to his first match in charge of the Socceroos since that famous night against Uruguay last November. He leads the side against reigning European champions Greece at the 90,000-capacity rebuilt MCG in front of an expected capacity crowd on May 25. The squad then head to Holland for a pre-finals training camp - including a friendly against Marco van Basten's side on June 4 - before heading to their base in Ohringen in Southern Germany.

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