||ESPNsoccernet: World Cup
Thursday, November 10, 2005
ESPNsoccernet: November 21, 7:22 PM UK
Know thy enemy
If Australia are to safely navigate their way past two tricky matches against Uruguay and reach the holy grail of only a second World Cup finals, they are going to have to show a determination and grit for which the country's sportsmen are rightly famed.
And so a number of eyebrows were raised when veteran of the previous two failed qualification campaigns, tough tackling Melbourne Victory defender Kevin Muscat was left out of Guus Hiddink's squad for the all or nothing encounters.
Australia v Uruguay preview
No less an authority as the only man to have led an Australian side to the finals, the outspoken Rale Rasic, coach of the Socceroos in 1974 in West Germany, claimed Muscat had been 'kicked out of the national team too early.'
The omission of the former Crystal Palace, Wolves, Rangers and Millwall right-back is more baffling still when an injury to captain Craig Moore and the inactivity of Tony Popovic has reduced Hiddink's options at the back.
More than that, Muscat's experience extends to scoring a winning goal, from the penalty spot, against the same opposition at the same stage of qualifying.
'It was great to get the winner against them last time but of course it's hard to look back on it with any fondness as five days later we were out of the World Cup,' Muscat recalls.
'The 3-0 defeat in Uruguay turned the 24 hours or so of celebrations a bit sour.'
It wasn't the first time he had tasted such cruel defeat. Four years prior to that, he was part of the squad that conspired to miss out when victory against Iran looked assured.
'Not actually being on the pitch made it a different experience for me personally,' says Muscat. ' I suppose with us being so close, being 20 minutes away from making the finals, was worse than the Uruguay game where, if I'm honest, we didn't play as well as them over the two legs. But not being directly involved I still look back on the defeat to Uruguay as more painful on a personal level.'
Muscat, who has gone on record as saying he would 'give his right arm to be involved', is confident that lessons have been learned and this Australian side won't be surprised by the level of hostility in the away leg. Four years ago Uruguay fans came out in force to 'welcome' Muscat and his team-mates at the airport where players were allegedly jostled and spat at.
'A lot's been made of all that. It wasn't like it was life threatening or anything,' the no-nonsense Aussie admits. 'It was just annoying that it delayed us and made the whole process take a few hours longer than it should have. But it just went to show to us what football means to countries like that; how important it is to them.'
'That won't happen this time as we'll be ready for it. That won't be a problem.'
'There's no doubt they are going to be difficult matches but I think we have every reason to be confident,' Muscat suggests. 'Playing the first game away benefits us. If we can get a good result over there it should set us up for the second leg.'
'All our top players need to be on their game over both matches but I'll be looking for a big performance from Mark Viduka as our best chance of getting through,' he says of Australia's potential match winner.
'I think he's improved as a player enormously over the last couple of years and now has greater speed and mobility running off him from midfield. He needs to be a leader and I'm sure he's up to it.'
Through a controversial career Muscat has earned a reputation with officials, fans and opposition players as something of a hard man; sometimes over stepping the mark when it comes to the physical side of the game. Similar accusations are often laid at the door of Uruguayan football and Muscat is under no illusions as to the threat that the South Americans pose.
'They've got the big lad, Richard Morales, who came on last time and scored twice,' he warns. 'He will be a real handful. They are physically strong up front and our defence will be in a battle right from the start.'
'With the second leg in Australia this time it is important we put on a good show on Saturday so we have something to work with at home. I don't think you can talk about a minimum requirement but if we can get an away goal that would be something.'
Muscat has not featured in a single squad selected by the new Dutch coach, a subject upon which he won't be drawn save to say that he still hopes one day to pull on the green and gold again.
'I'm still ambitious,' he says, 'but I'm conscious that it's going to be really hard to get back into the side.'
Hiddink has talked of a need to get Australian players to step back from an over-committed state of mind which hampers their ability to take care of individual jobs and keep the game structured in their favour. With Muscat's reputation for hot-headedness, this may explain his exclusion.
But a number of impressive performances for A-League side Melbourne Victory suggest he may still have something to offer in the future. At, say, the World Cup finals in Germany next year?
'Let's just get past this one first shall we? It's too early to be thinking about that; let's just qualify for one for a change.'
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