Tuesday, July 17, 2007
From K-Town to Hanoi
Tim Cahill called it 'destiny' while Harry Kewell warned of'revenge'. Even in the post-match euphoria of a 4-0 thumping of Asian Cup co-hosts Thailand, Australia were already bracing themselves for a re-match with Japan in the quarter-finals.
Thirteen months after their 3-1 victory over the Japanese in the 2006 World Cup, the Socceroos will come face to face with the same opponents on a big, international stage.
Except this time, they shape up to a Japan side who are two-time defending champions and are playing in a region they've largely dominated for more then a decade.
How they'd love to put the new boys on the block in their place with the Aussies dipping their toes into a senior Asian competition for the first time.
'If we'd have a choice of opponents, Australia would have been first on the list,' said striker Seiichiro Maki.'That's the team we wanted to meet and have the chance to bury those ghosts.'
The undefeated Japanese have the advantage of staying in Vietnam, where they've played their preliminary matches, while the Socceroos must travel from Bangkok after finishing only second in group-A.
Following a disappointing 1-1 draw with Oman and a disastrous 3-1 defeat to Iraq, Australia finally found their feet by putting four unanswered goals - three in the last 10 minutes - past the Thais on home soil.
And with reports circulating that Dutchman Dick Advocaat is being lined up to take over before the end of the year, under-fire coach Graham Arnold produced a faultless tactical display to get Australia into the knockout stages.
Four changes to the starting side - including a re-shaped central defence with Mark Milligan and Michael Beauchamp taking over from the suspended Lucas Neill and Patrick Kisnorbo - fired the Socceroos to their best competitive performance since the 2006 World Cup.
Arnold held back midfielders Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill until midway through the second half when the English Premier League pair ripped apart the tiring Thais, in tandem with new Newcastle signing, Mark Viduka.
Liverpool's Kewell was quick to deny rumours of a rift within the camp or any dissatisfaction with 43-year-old Arnold, a former national team striker.
'I've been in this Australian camp for 10 years now and I've never known a time when the boys stick (as close) together like this,' Kewell said.
Cahill, who plays for Merseyside rivals Everton, added that the Socceroos' opening two performances warranted criticism but the team was again finding its feet.
'I'm absolutely buzzing,' he said.'The public demanded it and we provided it. The last few days have been like a roller coaster. I can't wait for the Japan game. It's just one of those things in football... it's destiny.'
Against the Japanese in Germany 2006, the 27-year-old Cahill scored twice in five minutes to spark Australia's late comeback.
But goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, who conceded a disputed first half goal from a free kick in the World Cup group game, played down the rivalry.
'It was over a year ago, and that's a long time in football,' the Middlesbrough goal-stopper said.'It's a totally different environment in a totally different competition.'
In Australia's favour is their tendency to perform better when the stakes are high. In front of near-empty stadiums against Oman and Iraq, they were abysmal. But before 46,000 Thai fans at Bangkok's Rajamangala Stadium, they lifted a notch after absorbing wave after wave of pressure from the confident Thais, who'd beaten Oman and drawn with Iraq.
'The Japan game is serious but maybe this team needs serious games to get with it,' said Michael Cockerill, football writer of the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Thailand clash was also their first night match, played in a soft, drifting rain that took the edge off a game-time temperature of 29 degrees centigrade, which was a welcome relief to the largely-Europe based squad.
But in their quarter-final against the Japanese, the Socceroos will return to the relative heat of the day with a 5.20pm kick-off. Just like in the middle of a blazing German summer last year in their Group F opener, it could come down to survival of the fittest.
The upcoming trip to Vietnam has thrown the travel plans of several thousand Socceroo supporters into chaos after hoping to remain in Bangkok as the winners of their group or planning to head home in the case of elimination. Now the scramble is on to get visas and flights in time for Saturday's match.
From Kaiserslautern to Hanoi, an emerging rivalry in world football is about to be renewed and fans from both sides of the equator don't want to miss out.
* Sydney-born Jason Dasey ( www.jasondasey.com ) is a host for Soccernet SportsCenter and Sportscenter on ESPN.
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