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Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Happy Brett at the Al Sadd

Jason Dasey

He's a veteran who runs like a teenager and can play almost anywhere: across the midfield, fullback and even in central defence. But it was the predatory instincts of a striker that turned Brett Emerton into Australia's unlikely hero at Qatar's Al Sadd Stadium.

In the absence of goalscoring stars like Mark Viduka, Tim Cahill and John Aloisi, Emerton's timely brace ensured a 3-1 away victory to take the Socceroos through to the final round of World Cup qualifying, with a game to spare.

So often the unsung hero putting in the hard yards, the lithe 29-year-old reminded us of his abundant footballing ability by providing much-needed spark for the goal-shy Socceroos in his 67th international appearance.

Playing in a right midfield role, supporting Harry Kewell and Brett Holman in front of him, Emerton helped unlock a stubborn Qatari defence that had kept clean sheets in their three previous matches.

His close range goals - in the 17th and 56th minutes - were a throwback to his eye-catching, younger days as captain of Australia's Olympics side and the attack-minded 21-year-old winger who left Sydney to join Dutch club Feyenoord in 2000.

Since then, Emerton's versatility has seen various coaches push him into more defensive positions from which they can get the most out of his speed and athleticism. He even filled in at centre-half when Guus Hiddink threw on extra strikers at the 2006 World Cup. And if goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer is ever red-carded, don't be surprised if Emo is thrown the gloves.

The fact that he's producing such inspired performances in the wake of another grueling campaign with Blackburn - he played 40 games across four competitions - is testimony to a physical make-up that sets Emerton apart.

Last year, several sports scientists and trainers named the Australian Institute of Sport graduate as his country's fittest athlete, ahead of Rugby players, swimmers and professional boxers. In a beep test before the 2006 World Cup, he registered 15: an almost unprecedented score for someone in his late 20s.

In the Qatar game, Emerton switched positions with FC Twente's Luke Wilkshire, who two years ago was catapulted into the first-choice Socceroo line-up by Hiddink ahead of established midfielders like Josip Skoko and Stan Lazaridis. While Wilkshire is one of the most improved players in the squad, he lacks the attacking capabilities of the more accomplished Emerton.

Emerton's efforts should earn him - and other European-based stars like Mark Bresciano and Vince Grella - a well deserved break from coach Pim Verbeek for Australia's final World Cup qualifier in this phase, against China in Sydney.

But Verbeek will be keen to make the most of what is now a redundant match in Asian Group 1 as the Chinese now have no chance of joining Australia in the next stage. He will have a risk-free platform to further develop combinations and strategies before the tougher games ahead.

Scott McDonald has been given a holiday, which is a shame, as Verbeek might have looked at a way of giving the prolific Celtic forward a more meaningful role in the Socceroo set-up, perhaps by starting him up front alongside Olyroo front-man Bruce Djite at ANZ Stadium.

Kewell did an admirable job as a lone striker - a role that doesn't suit McDonald - against Iraq and Qatar but is unlikely to have the same success against better defenders. Australia need to develop more attacking options - Josh Kennedy, Archie Thompson and Joel Griffiths among them - rather than rely on their gifted midfielders.

Curiously, Bristol City's mercurial playmaker Nick Carle - unwittingly one of the most polarising figures in Australian football - has also been released from the squad. But he might have been given a chance to demonstrate his creative skills, despite the obvious reservations of the defensively-minded Verbeek.

And to expand Australia's limited options at the back, Nurnburg FC teenager Matthew Spriranovic should be given another opportunity in central defence.

Since taking over six months ago, the straight-shooting Verbeek has barely put a foot wrong: getting results and winning approval from both inside and outside the dressing room. He's drawn from his experience as a former South Korea coach to help ensure that Australia's competitive results have been far better than in last year's botched Asian Cup campaign.

But for all Verbeek's tactical nous, the Socceroos still need many of their Germany 2006 heroes to come back into the fold: notably the enigmatic Mark Viduka, the injured Tim Cahill and the newly-blessed father, Lucas Neill.

Neill was one of the stars of the last World Cup and provides excellent distribution as well as a sense of leadership alongside fledgling centre backs like Spiranvoic, Michael Beauchamp and Jade North. Craig Moore's international retirement earlier this year leaves greater responsibility on the West Ham man's shoulders. Truth be told, the outstanding recent performances of goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer have made Australia's defence - just two goals conceded in five competitive matches - seem a lot better than it actually is.

Also needed are Olyroos captain, Mark Milligan - who can play anywhere at the back, new AEK Athens recruit, Nathan Burns and FC Basel utility, Scott Chipperfield.

Injury and family commitments have limited Chipperfield, who played all four games at Germany 2006, to just two Socceroo appearances in the last 18 months. But even at the age of 32, he provides better all-round value at left-back than David Carney who looks good going forward but can be defensively exposed.

Fortunately, Australia's encouraging progress on an unfamiliar Asian route means that many of the experienced hands - plus the young guns of the Olympic team - will be looking to jump on board with the chance of drinking the intoxicating and addictive elixir of the World Cup finals.

Pim's pups can reflect on a job well done so far. But the need for self assessment and ongoing improvements can't stop because the road will get only rockier from here.

• Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is a host for Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.


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