Monday, July 23, 2007

The post mortem begins …

Australian soccer news.
The post mortem begins …

Soccerphile columnist Marc Fox picks the bones out of Australia's quarter-final exit from an Asian Cup debut blighted by over-ambition and arrogance.

For an exiled Englishman, the goings-on of the past couple of months have followed a painfully familiar recipe.

Step one: take a sprinkling of the highest earners from the Premiership off the back of another marathon season.

Step two: lavish with unadulterated praise.

Step three: prepare poorly.

Step four: bake in 30-degree heat until (well and truly) cooked.

The result: quarter-final elimination on spot-kicks. Sound familiar?

That the vogue in Australian football circles is to decry the incumbent English coaching style only adds salt to the wounds.

The contributing factors to the Socceroos' early elimination are so numerous perhaps coach Graham Arnold will be a relieved man when the ruling body finally replaces him with a high-profile foreigner.

That might be as quickly as this month with all media speculation pointing towards Dick Advocaat, the former Holland and South Korea manager, taking charge at the end of his domestic contract in Russia.

"We have learned a lot in the last couple of weeks, Asia is very difficult," Arnold predictably surmised after the shootout defeat to Japan over the weekend. "The expectations I put on the team were semi-finals minimum and so obviously it's below expectations."

However, as Arnold knows only too well, the results - including a 3-1 loss to Iraq during the group stage - were just one piece of the pie.

The finger has been pointed variously from the dearth of seriously competitive warm-up games to player ill-discipline, fitness and sheer willingness to graft in testing climatic conditions.

But put simply the expectations placed on last year's World Cup revelations - as is often the case in England - were simply blown to astronomical proportions.

Almost from the outset, for some it wasn't even going to be enough just to win the Asian Cup outright at their first attempt.

As Soccerphile discussed two months ago, Socceroos defender Lucas Neill made a rod for his own back when he boasted Australia would canter through the tournament with an unblemished record.

"I really think we've got a squad that can handle the conditions, enough of us have played on the biggest stage now that we won't be intimidated by the teams we're going to play against and I really see the standard we're expecting to set taking us all the way to the end," Neill told reporters in May despite revealing his utter lack of knowledge about the Asian scene.

Other players joined the bandwagon too, chiming in with comments about how nothing will have been gained from last year's World Cup experience if they don't go onto be crowned kings of Asia.

It is Neill, though, who has been bought crashing back down to earth with the loudest bump 12 months after remarkably being linked with a switch to Barcelona.

The West Ham defender was part of the back four humiliated in the opening group games, was at fault for Iraq's third and then was sent off for back-chatting the referee.

After being all but named and shamed by Arnold for his attitude, Neill only earned a reprieve to play the Japanese through Luke Wilkshire's suspension but then went onto ruin his comeback by missing a penalty in the shootout.

To focus solely on one player, though, is unjust. From Mark Schwarzer in goal to Mark Viduka in attack, the Australians were technically outsmarted by every one of their opponents.

That includes Thailand who fell victim to three well-executed counter punches after dominating large swathes of the game before eventually succumbing 4-0.

The technical flaws in Australia's play run deep - a notion supported by the failures of the under-17s and under-20s in reaching their respective World Cups last year - and cannot be improved overnight.

But what's surprised most onlookers down under is the vast gulf between the national team's ability to retain possession for long periods and their opponents, particularly, as troublesome hacks have been quick to highlight, given the sky-high pay cheques banked every week by the European-based players.

At least Arnold didn't pander to the likes of Neill and Harry Kewell, and may have even come out of the whole muddle with some brownie points for blooding a number of A-League players like Sydney FC pair Mark Milligan and David Carney.

If only because of scheduling alone, Arnold's successor will invariably need to rely on Milligan, Carney and others from the local scene for the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign starting next year.

Maybe that will also help realign expectation levels with regard to Australia's participation in South Africa - and that, after this sorry mess, must surely be a good thing.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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