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So far so good for Socceroos

April 1, 2008
By Jason Dasey
(Archive)

The gangly legs of Mark Schwarzer mean the difference between a warm glow of Socceroo satisfaction and an anxious two-month wait until the next round of qualifiers.

GettyImagesMark Schwarzer saves Shao's penalty as the Socceroos gain a high point in Chelsea.
Schwarzer's awkward yet effective save of Shao Jiayi's penalty that denied China a late and undeserved victory in Kunming kept Pim Verbeek's side on track for a second consecutive World Cup finals appearance.

On top of Group 1 with four points after two matches and without conceding a goal, the Aussies are full of confidence ahead of four games in three weeks in June that will complete the third round of Asian qualifying.

And the most pleasing aspect for fans is how the national team has overcome adversity to improve its prospects for the future.

Consider this: China had been preparing at the 1900m altitude of Kunming for almost a month while many of the Socceroos arrived just a day or two before after an 18-hour journey. The game kicked off at 2pm which was 6am in the time-zone where many of the Australians had come from. At least seven first-choice players were missing - including Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell and Scott McDonald - and striker Archie Thompson went off injured after eight minutes.

And yet the Socceroos were still able to produce a measured, controlled yet spirited away performance at Tuodong Stadium that saw many unlikely heroes emerge.

Thompson's departure turned out to be a blessing in disguise as lively replacement Brett Holman proved a handful to the Chinese defence and almost set up a first-half goal for Mark Bresciano.

Jade North emerged from the afterglow of the Newcastle Jets' A-League Grand Final triumph to contribute a sterling display at right full-back. Michael Beauchamp has barely played in recent weeks for Bundesliga strugglers, Nurnberg, but was as solid as a rock alongside Lucas Neill in central defence.

Luke Wilkshire stepped up to take greater responsibility as Australia dominated the midfield exchanges. FC Twente's Wilkshire is probably the most improved player in the squad and now takes many of the Socceroo corners and free-kicks. Eyebrows were raised at the 2006 World Cup when coach Guus Hiddink plucked Wilkshire from the fringes of Bristol City and opted for him ahead of established midfielders Josip Skoko and Stan Lazaridis in his team selections but his vision is being paid off on the road to 2010.

And who could forget Schwarzer's sang froid with barely a minute left after he conceded a debatable penalty by bringing down replacement striker Qu Bo?

With memories of his heroics in the 2005 shoot-out with Uruguay in Sydney, Schwarzer remained motionless on his line before using his legs to stop a weak spot-kick from Energie Cottbus striker Shao and preserve the 0-0 draw.

'Any time a goalkeeper saves a penalty it's a good save regardless of how the ball's been struck,' Schwarzer said. 'I was lucky that the ball hit my legs and came straight back towards me and I was able to grab hold of it.'

The Middlesbrough man makes the odd mistake and isn't without his critics, but you've got to admire his unwavering dedication to the national cause. He earned the first of his 54 international caps against Canada in 1993 when Graham Arnold was his captain and Robbie Slater and Frank Farina were amongst his teammates.

With AC Milan's Zeljko Kalac now retired from international football, Schwarzer, the longest-serving foreign player in the English Premier League, has no serious rival for the Socceroos' number one jersey.

At Germany 2006, Schwarzer clashed with Hiddink whom he criticised for having poor man management skills by keeping players on edge by not naming his team until just before games.

As for Verbeek, he hasn't put a foot wrong since taking over the coaching job at the end of last year and has quickly earned the respect of his senior players.

When the World Cup draw came out in November, several Europe-based Socceroos shook their heads and said they had no way of making the opening qualifiers in February and March.

In the end, almost the entire foreign contingent - injury permitting – travelled across the world to the games against Qatar and China. That's a credit to the Dutchman's powers of persuasion.

Verbeek is now in Europe, meeting with several veteran players including FC Basel's Scott Chipperfield, Derby County's Mile Sterjovski and, of course, Mark Viduka at Newcastle United.

Viduka has told friends that he intends to retire from international football but you can bet that Verbeek will be asking the 2006 World Cup captain to have a long think before making any announcement, even if it means not having him for the June qualifiers.

GettyImagesPim Verbeek congratulates Lucas Neill on a job well done.
Approaching his 33rd birthday, Viduka still offers the Socceroos a dimension that the likes of Josh Kennedy, Scott McDonald and John Aloisi can't provide and Verbeek knows that.

Australia's next assignment is a June 2nd qualifier at home to Asian champions Iraq who sit bottom of group-1 after a draw and a defeat. After the mistakes learned from the shock Asian Cup defeat, it's hard to predict anything but a comprehensive Australian victory.

The Dutchman says that 11 points should be enough to take the Socceroos through to the fourth and final round of World Cup qualifiers, starting in September.

If they get that far, the Socceroos will look back on their assured ascent to the altitude of south-west China as an important step along the way.

•  Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an anchor for Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter on ESPN.