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Thursday, June 10, 2010
Oceans apart

Brett Taylor

The Oceania duo of Australia and New Zealand will both be represented at the same World Cup for the first time in 2010, but under contrasting circumstances. • Taylor: Late nights in the Far East Australia, of course, have been in the Asian Confederation since Germany 2006, but in purely geographical terms the presence of the two nations in South Africa reflects their region's growing influence in world football. The Australasia region is one of FIFA's final frontiers - games with oval-shaped balls have long been preferred to the world game - but South Africa 2010 suggests those sands are shifting. Australia head to South Africa under a weight of expectation that was generated by Guus Hiddink's celebrated class of 2006. Thanks to their exploits four years ago, Australia have already come of age as a serious football nation, and shouldn't be surprising anyone in South Africa. After breaking into the second round in Germany, they have gone on to become one of the strongest teams in the Asian region, along with South Korea. Considering their absence from the World Cup finals since 1974 prior to the history-making run in Germany, it's logical that comparisons would be made between Australia's 2006 and 2010 campaigns. Germany is the only point of reference for media and fans alike. The fact that Australia have a near-identical team - minus Mark Viduka - to the one four years ago only confirms the notion that their success will be judged as relative to the last World Cup, when they defeated Japan and drew with Croatia to scrape through to the second round. In that context, most pre-World Cup indicators point towards disappointment for Socceroos fans this time around. They have been given a much more difficult draw, with many considering Group D to be the most even and challenging at the tournament. Germany rarely slip up at the group phase, African Nations Cup finalists Ghana have home continent advantage and Serbia's quality has them tipped as a possible dark horse for the quarter-finals or better. Australia will tackle a tougher group with arguably a weaker team. Where superior fitness was previously the Socceroos' prime point of difference, the same starting XI return with an average age sliding the other side of 30. They argue they will make up for their lack of dynamism and energy with experience, which is true to an extent, but they won't be able to overwhelm teams late on as they did against Japan and Croatia last time. Not conceding the first goal, and therefore not needing to chase the game, will be priorities one, two and three for Pim Verbeek's men. On the personnel front, there is a feeling that this tournament could have come a year too late for some of Australia's senior stars. Veteran defender Craig Moore has rarely let his country down when it matters most, but he had a disrupted club season and his form in the friendlies has been mixed. Vince Grella, Hiddink's crucial midfield pivot in Germany, has been unsteady and his position has come under question after some uncharacteristic errors. Key players Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton have barely been seen in the build-up and, while both should be ready to feature, they will certainly lack match fitness. On the positive side, the obvious challenges Australia face have created a siege mentality around the squad heading into the tournament. Their performances in the build-up to the tournament, including poor displays against New Zealand and USA around a solid 1-0 win over Denmark, have brought criticism from back home and predictions of an early exit. But with their backs to the wall, and their chances being written off once again, the Socceroos will be at their very best. Australia's history is littered with positive results against more-fancied teams - they love the underdog tag. It's something about the sporting psyche down under that lifts Australian athletes to another level on the world stage. They have one of the most experienced and best organised teams in the tournament and the FFA's logistical preparation has been second to none. They have an excellent base camp in South Africa and they were the first team to arrive, giving them extra time to get used to conditions. A strong mentality is one of the team's greatest assets, so stage fright will not be a concern. You can bet on it: this team will be peaking at the right time and they will be extremely hard to beat, even for mighty Germany. The only question is whether Australia can overcome their limited technical quality and a lack of speed with their underdog mentality, high work rate and relentless defensive discipline. The answer may simply lie in how much luck falls their way throughout the tournament. New Zealand, in contrast, come into the tournament without the burden of expectation. They will be hoping to benefit from the element of surprise in the same way Australia did four years ago. Coach Ricki Herbert has developed a 3-4-3 formation that gets the most out of the troops available to him, folding back to a sturdy 5-4-1 off the ball before thrusting forward with long balls through the middle on the counter-attack. Although captain Ryan Nelsen selects himself, Herbert must choose between quality or experience when filling the other two spots in his back three. Overseas-based youngsters Winston Reid and Tommy Smith appear to have outed veterans Ben Sigmund and Ivan Vicelich as recently as the pre-tournament friendlies. Both started in the surprise 1-0 win over Serbia, but Herbert must decide if his defence should be built on these impressive players who have just a handful of caps between them, or the experienced campaigners who helped the All Whites qualify in the first place. Up front, Shane Smeltz, Chris Killen and Rory Fallon are all physical, mobile strikers who seek to overwhelm defences like raiders storming a castle. Their approach may lack science, but it has proved effective and could be the shock-and-awe strategy to unsettle Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia. New Zealand find themselves as rank outsiders in what is not the World Cup's most difficult group. Qualification may indeed be out of reach, but success may be measured in goals scored, or clean sheets kept. The indications are that the All Whites won't be embarrassed at the World Cup, but they can compete freely in the knowledge they've done their country proud just by being there.

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