Friday, October 13, 2006

Job done but Asian switch no easy transition

They ended up with the simplest of tasks qualifying from a reduced-size group in their maiden Asian Cup campaign but despite taking top spot Australia will be under no illusions as to the work ahead.

You could ask little more of the Socceroos than heading their group and progressing to next year's Asian Cup finals as one of the seeded nations. But many still are.

For after being treated to blockbusters against former and reigning world champions Brazil and Italy during Germany's World Cup summer, the Australian football fraternity have been decidedly spoilt.

Forget that up until last year, the public had been served up a series of walkovers against their Pacific neighbours before holding their breath in a quadrennial fight to the death against a South American gladiator. Supporters are now demanding the thrills and spills which accompany facing the game's elite in every international outing. And recently that's left some feeling a little short-changed despite the ultimate target - qualification - arriving as comfortably as you could have imagined.

Australia's inaugural involvement in Asian competition will go down in history as somewhat of a damp squib. The Socceroos received a embarrassingly favourable draw - when three Middle Eastern nations Bahrain, Kuwait and Lebanon were plucked alongside them in Group D - because of the reduced travelling their Europe-based stars would need to undertake for away matches.

Then, war-torn Lebanon pulled out of the running after the first round of matches leaving Australia needing just one more victory for automatic qualification. That they got in August at home to Kuwait. Played two, won two and with both feet already on the plane to South East Asia for next July's jointly-hosted finals.

So what's the issue?

The main criticism is that their displays under the guidance of Graham Arnold, Guus Hiddink's former assistant and coach of the Australia's under-23s, became progressively worse throughout the preliminary series. Valid reasons certainly include the Socceroos' World Cup interruption, the scheduling of fixtures and the extreme conditions encountered on away legs especially in the wilting heat of Kuwait City last month.

But Arnold's planning and execution of his first set of competitive games in charge of the senior national team definitely weren’t helped by the constant chopping and changing of the squad structure.

In four matches, Arnold called up a remarkable 51 different players yet not one featured in every squad. In essence, he used three different starting sides: one entirely based on players from the A-League, one using the World Cup starters and, twice, a combination of players from each camp.

However, the results didn't follow that pattern. A combination side probably chiselled out the most respectable result - the Socceroos' 3-1 over Bahrain in Manama last February to kick-start qualifying. Then, the squad drawn from the local competition eventually got the job done over Kuwait at home.

But after the locals were all unceremoniously dumped, the returning so-called senior side proceeded to lose 2-0 in Kuwait - a real low point in the steeping learning curve of Asian competition. Finally, this week the World Cup stars struggled to defeat an experimental Bahraini side 2-0 in Sydney.

So what does all this mean?

The Asian Cup will by no means be a walk in the park in spite of Australia's achievement in being the only AFC nation to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup. And future campaigns, regardless of the transition to Asia, have not really reduced the challenges of flying the Socceroos back from Europe and back again within a limited timeframe.

The opponents are now stronger than when in Oceania but whether the national team's superstars can still be bothered to haul themselves back - especially for home games - is another matter.

One flipside is the knock-on benefit to A-League stocks with fringe Socceroos currently based in Europe seeing the domestic scene as perhaps a viable way of keeping their international careers alive.

Goalkeeper Ante Covic, for instance, is reported to be mulling over an offer to join the Newcastle Jets after spending five seasons with Hammarby in Sweden and with former number two Zeljko Kalac now in retirement, it could be his best shot to deposing No.1 Mark Schwarzer - at least outside the major tournaments.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

Australian Soccer News

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