Friday, February 8, 2008

Filling Hiddink's shoes

Filling Hiddink's shoes.
Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek didn't quite measure up to his illustrious predecessor in charge of South Korea. On Wednesday night, Verbeek retried Guus Hiddink's shoes on for size as Australia mounted their maiden World Cup qualifying campaign through the AFC.

If Verbeek's 3-0 victory over Qatar wasn't quite enough to prove the bulk of his doubters wrong, it must have gone mighty close.

There will still be those - the cynics who harboured a personal preference of the shining CV of Omar (formally Philippe) Troussier over Hiddink's countryman and former assistant - who might remain unconvinced.

Let's see how Verbeek's inevitably jetlagged Socceroos handle the altitude of southwestern city Kunming in their first AFC qualifier overseas against China next month, they might remark.

But most of the 50,000-plus clad in the green and gold at the Telstra Dome in midweek, not to mention a host of interested TV viewers, will be jointly relieved and excited by a ruthless first-half display which saw the outgunned Qataris put to the sword in the opening 33 minutes.

The first test of the unheralded Verbeek was always going to be his wider influence in the boardrooms of Europe's grandest.

His sway over the often reluctant full-time employers of Tim Cahill and the like increased in magnitude when the Dutchman, in what has already become typical of his forthright style, discarded virtually every one of his original A-League contingent, labelling them not up to international standards.

Only Queensland's Craig Moore made Verbeek's first starting XI, excelling alongside captain Lucas Neill in central defence. Although whether the former skipper and 2006 World Cup goalscorer is truly considered a member of the A-League gang is doubtful.

In any case, Moore, 32, pulled the pin on his national team career immediately after the match.

Verbeek also showed his ruthless streak in quietly electing not to call-up Harry Kewell - to surprisingly little fanfare - and then axing Norway-based defender Michael Thwaite after he'd already completed the arduous trip home.

"I have better players in his position," was the coach's blunt assessment. "That’s the only reason. Michael did well at training and I really appreciated that he took the time and energy to come here but I have better players in his position. That’s football."

It would take a narrow-minded individual not to spot Verbeek gently asserting his control over a notoriously big-headed bunch.

Another absentee was Mark Viduka. The Newcastle United frontman played against Middlesbrough in the Premier League the Sunday previous with Boro goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer proving the flight home possible by doing it himself.

However, while Viduka's self-imposed international exile continues, Verbeek is not prepared to give up on him without a fight.

The Dutchman made a public play for Viduka's future services in the wrap up of the Qatar victory and said he would fly to the north east in person to share a coffee and a chinwag.

"Mark is always on the list," Verbeek clearly stated. "I would prefer to have five strikers to choose from and it's always better that players have a headache over fighting for their position than coaches have a headache."

Viduka might be on his shortlist, but at 33 this year and with first team football under Kevin Keegan at Newcastle no certainty, Verbeek needed to trial Plan B and stylishly did so in Melbourne, Viduka's hometown.

After toying with the idea of playing just one up front, he paired long-haired Karlsruher SC targetman Josh Kennedy with Scott McDonald, the stocky Celtic forward who hasn't stopped scoring in the SPL since moving to Glasgow in the off season.

Kennedy headed the opener from Brett Emerton's whipped delivery while McDonald was a menace all night, supplying the low centre which Cahill dummied for Mark Bresciano to tuck away for the clincher.

PSV's Jason Culina, in a holding midfield role, also received plaudits after the game, as did revitalised left-footer David Carney, now at Sheffield United in England's second tier.

Kennedy and McDonald aside, the names weren't actually that different from the failed Asian Cup campaign last July. But the attitude was.

However, with just one full training session to work with a group he'd mostly never before met, the nagging feeling about Verbeek's influence hasn't instantly gone away.

The March 26 game in China is another non FIFA-designated matchday which means Verbeek will have a similarly limited time with his players to prepare.

But at least for the next month or so he has, as Hiddink did before, Australia's goodwill behind him.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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