Monday, June 15, 2009

Lay off and look forward: Schwarzer

Lay off and look forward: Schwarzer.
The move into the Asian confederation has created so many possibilities for the World Cup-bound Socceroos, but it has unexpectedly robbed them of something - a proper climax to qualifying.

Few punters will forget that November night in 2005 when a bare-chested John Aloisi wheeled away after scoring the decisive penalty in Australia's shootout victory over Uruguay, a goal, which combined with Mark Schwarzer's heroics, confirming only the country's second appearance in a World Cup finals.

But a scratchy goalless draw in Doha was never likely to provide the impetus for anything resembling the party which followed in Sydney three-and-a-half years ago.

Last Wednesday's stalemate with Qatar confirmed the Aussies were among the first qualifiers for South Africa 2010 - alongside Japan, this Wednesday's opponents in a head-to-head for top spot in Group 1.

The MCG match-up, the latest instalment in a rivalry which began in the opening game of the 2006 World Cup, should have been a fitting finale for qualification this time around.

But the dominance of the pair - they are both unbeaten leading into the final game - has swept aside the also-rans in double-quick time and prompted unexpected criticism by some notable detractors down under.

Pim Verbeek's side have even been labelled lifeless by one outspoken critic.

"It's ludicrous really and something that is simply unfair. Everyone wanted us to qualify for the World Cup and we've done that, and it's still not good enough for some," responded goalkeeper Schwarzer.

"We've qualified for back-to-back World Cups and we can't do any more than that."

The Fulham shot-stopper is riding a crest of a wave for club and country. This past week has seen him named the Australian player-of-the-year while Schwarzer was also an ever-present for Roy Hodgson's Fulham as they surprised many by clinching a place in next season's Europa League, vindicating his move away from Middlesbrough after a decade of service.

All the while, the 36-year-old has remained a staunch member of Verbeek's winning side, not missing a game in the final phase of qualifying and, what's more, not even conceding a goal.

If Schwarzer can keep his eighth straight clean sheet on Wednesday, Australia would be assured of finishing atop Group 1 and be crowned the premier AFC qualifiers in their first World Cup campaign since switching from Oceania in 2006.

"The preparation and organisational skills behind the scenes to this campaign compared to four years ago is . . . more impressive," continued Schwarzer, reflecting on the previous regime under Guus Hiddink. "It's because there isn't the euphoria like last time when we qualified on home soil in dramatic circumstances.

"Trust me, this has been extremely challenging and Pim has done a magnificent job."

Harry Kewell and Chris Coyne will miss the Japan clash through injury. Central defender Coyne combined well with the rejuvenated Mark Milligan in the 2-0 win over Bahrain and will be replaced by Lucas Neill.

Neill, who will leave West Ham this summer after snubbing a new deal, returns from suspension after his controversial Beckham-esque tactical caution against Qatar.

MILE STERJOVSKI

Meanwhile, Mile Sterjovski is the latest Socceroo to return to burgeoning ranks of the A-League. He will join close friend Jacob Burns in a restructured Perth Glory midfield which coach Dave Mitchell hopes will catapult his side into title contention for the first time in the competition's history.

Mitchell helped develop the young Sterjovski at Parramatta Power and Sydney United, where the now 30-year-old went on to win the former national league Golden Boot a decade ago.

Sterjovski, who scored the opening goal against Bahrain, has penned a three-year deal in the west.

“When you look at the marquee status and the criteria to fill that role then Mile fits the bill perfectly,” beamed Mitchell.

“If someone had said a few months ago that we’d have two Socceroos in our squad (Sterjovski and Burns) for the start of the new season it would have been quickly dismissed.

"However, that’s exactly what we’ve done - we’ve added quality.

"The Glory supporters have a lot to get excited about this season.”

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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