Thursday, May 24, 2007

Future hangs in the balance

A-League.
Future hangs in the balance
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold has a problem and, like so much in life, it boils down to a question of balance.

Not long ago, he was merely interim Socceroos coach Graham Arnold, the man tasked with plugging the unenviable gap created by Guus Hiddink's departure after the World Cup.

Now the interim tag has been binned, and the former international striker has his heart set on the long-term post of coaching Australia to the 2010 World Cup.

How does he snare the nation's top footballing job for the immediate future?

Well holding aloft July's Asian Cup would of course be excellent interview material for the man who hasn’t yet won all over his critics despite his approachable demeanour and a string of OK results.

But therein lies the heart of the problem. Despite a dose of swagger from Australia's leading lights, taking out the premier regional crown at the first attempt won't quite be the jaunt some are expecting.

Naturally, the region's current ranked No.2 nation has high expectations, but competing with the AFC's aristocrats, particularly in the sweltering conditions at their Bangkok base, is going to need an Australian squad close to its strongest - just as Hiddink enjoyed 12 months ago.

However, the dilemma is that if Arnold continues naming his strongest side, how are his peripheral squad members and local A-League players ever going to gain enough international experience to seriously compete for a place in South Africa in three years time.

Choices, choices.

"With the World Cup qualifying program coming up there's going to be a huge emphasis on A-League players," Arnold confirmed to reporters after announcing his 23-man squad for the June friendly against nemesis Uruguay.

"The short-term picture is obviously the Asian Cup but I'd rather look at the big picture as well.

"This is a good chance to look at A-League players to see who can step up to the mark because if I don't learn about them in (friendly) games when will we learn about them?"

Arnold's biggest concern is that up to 10 of the stars which shone for Hiddink in Germany won't make the trip to Southeast Asia.

Confirmed absentees include then-captain Craig Moore and German-based striker Josh Kennedy through injury while Zeljko Kalac, Stan Lazaridis and Tony Popovic have retired.

Arnold has this week also placed huge question marks over the availability of left-sided defender Scott Chipperfield and striker John Aloisi through personal reasons and injury respectively while goalkeeper Ante Covic has slipped from favour and Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill are returning from long-term layoffs.

That already leaves the Socceroos desperately lacking in depth without considering the possible international retirements of Aloisi, Josip Skoko and even talismanic striker Mark Viduka after the finals.

"I believe I'm a long way down the track of convincing him not to retire after the Asian Cup but if a player decides that there's nothing you can do to change his mind," Arnold said of the off-contract Viduka, who finished the English Premiership season in a hurry with 16 goals in 22 games.

"I definitely think he's got another World Cup in him. The way he's played this year convinces me that as long as Mark's happy off the field he takes that onto the field."

Pointedly, Arnold's squad to face Uruguay next weekend features just three of the heroes who defeated the South Americans on penalties in that famous World Cup playoff in November 2005.

But then this, Arnold admits, is a transitional era for Australia, although he also, somewhat hopefully, describes the squad picked to face their old enemy as 'the future of Australian football'.

"If I look at a backline, for example, of (Brett) Emerton, (Lucas) Neill, (Patrick) Kisnorbo and (Michael) Thwaite, that could be the backline for the 2010 World Cup," he added.

The problem, critics of the national team's development argue, is that those names are hardly likely send a shiver down the spines of prospective qualifying opponents.

At least, Arnold can rely on the likes of goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, Vinnie Grella, Mark Bresciano and Jason Culina as well as Cahill and Kewell for the charge to South Africa.

The speed at which he introduces the remaining starters is one he will doubtless spend many a sleepless night worrying about.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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