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Saturday, June 19, 2010
Socceroos left to rue misfortune

Brett Taylor

Once again, the football fates have conjured up a World Cup nightmare for the Socceroos that may take another four years to put right. • Gha 1-1 Aus: Black Stars profit
• Rajevac pleased with point
• Gallery Photo Gallery The cruelty of the World Cup is that there is such a long time between tournaments. The time spent planning and preparing far outweighs the time spent competing, and the endless analysis of teams and players as they appear on paper inevitably goes out the window once a ball is finally kicked and the considerable element of luck is introduced. Pim Verbeek, for all his faults, seems like the kind of thorough coach who would have left no stone unturned in his effort to have Australia as best prepared as possible for every variable they would encounter in South Africa. But not even he would have predicted two red cards would leave the Socceroos' Group D campaign in tatters before its halfway point. It was feared that Tim Cahill's dismissal, ludicrously harsh considering other challenges in this World Cup that have been punished by yellow cards only, would be a bigger penalty for Australia than the result itself in the expected loss to Germany. So it proved as the Socceroos noticeably lacked their primary goalscoring threat against Ghana. And the red card given to Harry Kewell, rightfully but tragically, for his handball on the line from Jonathan Mensah's goalbound shot midway through the first half, put the handbrake on the chances of victory which were quickly growing after Brett Holman's opening goal. It was a game-breaking moment for Ghana, who remain scoreless bar two penalties from two handballs, and a heart-breaking one for Australia. After waiting so long to get here, and enduring the longest week in Australian football after the Germany thrashing, what was shaping to be a famous and historic day was turned upside down by pure misfortune. FIFA's law-making body has agreed to a post- World Cup review of the 'triple-punishment' rule where players who are sent off for denying a goalscoring opportunity also see their team concede through a penalty kick and then cop an automatic suspension to boot. The potential rule-change has come too late for Kewell and Australia, who watched Asamoah Gyan slot home his second penalty of the tournament before launching a gallant, yet ultimately fruitless, mission to regain their precious and fleeting lead. The single point keeps Australia in with that dreaded mathematical chance of progressing from Group D, although where other results fell perfectly at Germany 2006, Serbia's win over Germany makes an escape near impossible. Ghana, for their part, were dreadful against 10-man Australia and should have no complaints if they lose to Germany and tumble out at either Serbia or Australia's expense. If Ghana lose, their losing margin and Australia's winning margin must equal four or more. If Germany lose to Ghana, Australia need only defeat Serbia to get through, and if the other match is a draw, Australia would need to win by five or more goals to progress. They won't give up, but in all probability this was the match that the Aussies had to win. Their narrow failure to do so against all the odds should at least restore some pride in players and supporters after the Durban debacle. If they put in a good showing against Serbia, and maybe even keep 11 men on the pitch just for novelty's sake, there would be no dishonour in even finishing last in what is surely this tournament's most even group from top to bottom. This match finally gave us some concrete answers about where this group of players is at, even if Kewell's dismissal ruined any chance of seeing them give a proper account of themselves across 90 minutes. Yes, the class of 2010 is limited in technique, but able to make up for it with the Australian assets of workrate and a never-say-die mentality, when the opposition is not a rampant Germany. No, they aren't at the same level of the class of 2006, who played their way into matches and overwhelmed opposition in a way this team doesn't appear capable of matching. Yes, the injection of some youth amongst a collection of older heads creates a better balance that should have been sought earlier than this match. No, Verbeek is not totally clueless at this level, as he repaired most of Australia's frailties from the first match and won the tactical battle as best as he could have hoped to with a man down. It seems right that one of the new boys, Holman, wrote his name into history as Australia's fifth World Cup finals goalscorer after reacting first to Mark Bresciano's testing free kick, which Richard Kingson duly fumbled into his path. Carl Valeri and David Carney held their own on the Socceroos' weaker left-hand side and should form part of the core of the 2014 team. Australia's right-side pairing of Luke Wilkshire and Brett Emerton dominated for the second time in this World Cup, and it was a shame that it was they who were outfought by Andre Ayew in the lead up to Ghana's penalty. More tragic still was that the ever-impressive Wilkshire wasted Australia's gilt-edged opportunity to break the deadlock when put through one on one with less than a quarter of an hour to play. Ghana lifted their snail-like intensity only between the two goals and found great joy pressing Australia's players high up the pitch during that period. With a win of almost equal importance to them, it's a wonder then that they continue that ploy for the rest of the match, instead sitting off Australia's sub-par ballplayers and resorting to pointless shots from long range. If they lose to Germany and crash out of the tournament, they will only have themselves to blame after not taking advantage of the extra man here. Among their emerging generation of players Australia desperately need to unearth a creator, perhaps in the style of the absent Nick Carle but preferably of a calibre that's beyond him, to spearhead what promises to be an exciting period of refreshing and renewing post-South Africa. Should Australia's journey end on Wednesday as now expected, it may be a fitting nod to the future that it will be without the suspended Kewell, who was unfortunately robbed of a chance at redemption by the matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as Lucas Neill was when Fabio Grosso lazily slipped over him to win the penalty that sent Australia out four years ago. Craig Moore will also be replaced by a younger player after collecting a second yellow card. In terms of jettisoning Australia's experienced campaigners for fresher youngsters, Verbeek was perhaps damned if he did and damned if he didn't, based on the sliding standards of the ageing stars and the unpreparedness of the newcomers. It could be seen a symbol, however, that Australia has failed to beat two of the youngest teams at the World Cup, nations that took the hard decisions to refresh just in time to groom their exciting talent for this tournament. Against Serbia Verbeek will be somewhat forced to finally look forward himself, and if the timing doesn't prove quite right for his squad this time around, at least he might have a belated chance to leave a legacy of players prepared for the 2014 campaign. Players who in four years time will be ready to put the hopes of a nation in the hands of the football gods once more.

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