Socceroos seeking piece of history
History awaits the Socceroos on Saturday as they take to the pitch in search of the first major silverware in the men's national team history.
Of course the Matildas beat their male counterparts to Asian Cup glory last year but that just gives the blokes more motivation to earn a continental monopoly of sorts when they face Japan at the Khalifa Stadium on Saturday.
It's difficult to know how an Australian victory would be received by Asia. It would be a boon for the game Down Under just six years after switching from Oceania, but it's not yet clear whether the Asian masses and those within the corridors at AFC headquarters have fully embraced their newest powerhouse. If the cheers emanating from the terraces in Qatar are anything to go by, the neutral seems to getting behind Australia's opponents. After all, Asia is the most broad and diverse Confederation as it is but an Australian victory would see the trophy head to a different continent altogether.
Still, Australia's conduct in Qatar should have helped their relations with their new brothers, while also being a key factor underpinning their improved success as compared to the ill-fated campaign of 2007. Four years ago Graham Arnold's Socceroos turned up for the South-East Asia-based tournament full of confidence and seemingly with little respect for their new surroundings, in terms of either culture or quality of opponent. And, having been battered 3-1 by eventual winners Iraq and needing a last gasp goal to save a 1-1 draw against Oman in the group stages, they lost 4-3 on penalties to the Blue Samurai in the quarter-finals.
That is best left in the past but it is suffice to say Holger Osieck's current crop have been humble and gracious. Crucially, the atmosphere in this squad seems to be overwhelmingly positive; every player is playing to their potential and they are all pulling in the same direction.
The biggest conundrum surrounding this Australian team is whether to attribute its success to the golden era of Guus Hiddink's 2006 World Cup vintage or the fresh faces that have performed so well. The likes of Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill are still there, forming much of the team's spine. But the likes of Sasa Ognenovski and Matt McKay have been the surprise standouts, doing much more than merely plugging the gaps left by retired Craig Moore and absent Mark Bresciano. The fact that McKay's form (along with the improved balance he offers down the left) kept Australia's second most-capped active player, Brett Emerton, on the bench for the semi-final, hints that a new era has indeed dawned.
In truth, any variation of the Australian squad over the past five years has probably had enough quality personnel to conquer Asia; the key for Osieck has been forming a cohesive unit and employing the best tactics for the players at his disposal. For that, the German deserves credit. The Aussies haven't set the tournament alight with scintillating football - that was left to Japan and South Korea. They have instead played to their strengths expertly, defending with discipline and resilience while relying primarily on their aerial superiority to create chances.
The 6-0 semi-final demolition of Uzbekistan, while impressive, was the odd one out of Australia's matches so far. It had more to do with their inept opposition's suicidal tactics than any kind of masterclass by the Socceroos. The main thing connecting it with the rest of Australia's tournament was the clean sheet. The Aussies have conceded just one goal, to South Korea, on the way to the final. Compared with the five Japan have shipped, it's the biggest advantage the Australians will carry into the final.
Which brings us to Australia's formidable opponents. Japan and Australia have enjoyed a fantastic rivalry since the Socceroos arrived on the AFC block. The green and gold took first blood at Germany 2006 when Cahill's desperately late double salvo turned the tables in dramatic fashion and sent Japan packing. Revenge came mere months later when Japan put Australia out of the last Asian Cup with a penalty shootout in Hanoi. The Socceroos reclaimed bragging rights with an away draw and a home win (albeit when already qualified) in the final group stage in the lead-up to South Africa but Kewell and Neill in particular, penalty-missers from 2007, will be eager to avenge that defeat in this latest instalment.
Cahill will be a key protagonist, having scored four times against Japan with doubles in Kaiserslautern and Melbourne. The Everton man has been battered and bruised throughout the tournament but he should take his place up front with Kewell and, Aussie fans hope, be at his talismanic best. Emerton will likely be on the bench again, leaving Holman to roam inside from the right while everywhere-man McKay assists David Carney at left-back, Mile Jedinak and Carl Valeri in the engine room and even the strikers if circumstances allow it.
Tactically, the Australia-Korea score draw was probably the best rehearsal the Socceroos could have hoped for ahead of this final. In a fascinating contrast of style set to be repeated in the final, the Koreans exhibited vastly superior technical ability man-for-man, interchanging places fluidly in their 4-2-3-1 formation. Japan play a similar game but perhaps with even better use of the full-backs, although the loss of Dortmund starlet Shinji Kagawa and his ability to penetrate a defence will be sorely missed against the compact Australian unit.
The most important individual battles could well be waged in Japan's box. Daiki Iwamasa and Yasuyuki Konno were horribly exposed by direct balls against South Korea, and that is Australia's forte. Maya Yoshida will likely come back into the defence after his suspension but it is still a far from first-choice rearguard facing Kewell and Cahill. The final factor to consider is the fitness levels of the two teams following the different semi-finals. Australia were barely tested and Osieck rested key players as early as possible, while Japan have 120 minutes and the mental mountain their penalty shootout to overcome before the finale.
The tournament should be considered a qualified success for the Socceroos regardless of the result on Saturday. But the Australian competitive spirit will have Osieck's charges focused on nothing but glory in the final. It is that unseen mental edge that helps Australian teams bridge the gap to more technically gifted opponents and it could prove the difference between two evenly matched teams. One subplot to the final is already in place, that being Schwarzer's record-setting 88th cap for his country. Australian fans hope that it will not be the only piece of history written on Saturday.