Socceroos missing momentum
Timing is everything in football. Four years ago the Socceroos launched their history-making 2006 World Cup campaign with a fantastic national send-off at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, beating then European champions Greece 1-0 thanks to a Josip Skoko volley grand enough to match the occasion.
Upwards of 90,000 fans crammed into the 'G, effectively filling Australia's most traditional sporting venue with a positive energy of hope and encouragement as the national side prepared to embark on their first World Cup mission in 32 years. History shows Guus Hiddink's team went on to surprise their way into the second round in Germany while also giving the might of Brazil and Italy stern tests in narrow losses.
Four years on, the same players remain (with the notable exception of Mark Viduka), but on the evidence of the respective displays in the Socceroos' last-minute 2-1 win over New Zealand on Monday, it's Australia's near neighbours who appear to have the greater momentum behind them. Despite the result, Pim Verbeek may be wondering if this World Cup has come a year too late for Australia.
This time, in the same stadium, an underwhelming crowd of 55,659 created a lacklustre atmosphere that summed up the Socceroos' typically solid yet uninspiring display. The All Whites, on the other hand, showed here they are capable of playing with the verve and endeavour, if not always the quality, to ruffle a few feathers in South Africa.
The parallels between Australia 2006 and New Zealand 2010 are uncanny; each was Oceania's sole World Cup representative, each a relative unknown on football's biggest stage and each carrying little expectations on their shoulders. New Zealand have their country behind them, football is on the up back home and they have nothing to lose in South Africa.
Ricki Herbert's All Whites employ a rare 3-4-3 formation designed to keep numbers behind the ball in defence before attacking with height and power through the centre on the counter. Herbert may not be among the World Cup's top masterminds but he knows his players and how to fashion an effective team out of them.
The front trio of goalscorer Chris Killen, Rory Fallon and Shane Smeltz work hard and manage to combine well without getting in the way of each other, and the simple flick-on by Smeltz to Killen's back post run that put New Zealand into a first-half lead showed exactly what can happen if other teams become complacent with their marking at the World Cup, as Australia's fill-in right-back Mark Milligan was on this occasion.
Australia were able to call upon a near full-strength team for the Greece game but injury robbed Verbeek of up to six potential starting players on Monday. The absence of Josh Kennedy and Harry Kewell handed a start to Scott McDonald up front, where he again toiled away with little reward in an unsuitable sole striker role. Verbeek's stubborn reluctance to vary from his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, even when he lacks the right players to execute it, contributed to Australia's frustrated first-half display.
That frustration boiled over in the form of reckless challenges by Vince Grella and Tim Cahill on New Zealand's Leo Bertos that saw the wing back stretchered off the field. Fallon had added heat to the trans-Tasman affair with pre-match comments that there could be injuries in the game, prompting Grella to call him "unprofessional". Craig Moore shoulder barged Fallon early in the match but Grella's disgraceful two-footed launch in particular would not have belonged in the fieriest derby, let alone a pre-tournament friendly.
Bertos' shin was visibly damaged by the tackles, at least on the surface, and his early exit handed a debut to Winston Reid, who appeared a capable option down the right. Killen's goal and the over-the-top tackling were the main talking points of the first half as Australia dominated possession but failed to penetrate New Zealand due to Cahill's lack of genuine playmaking ability in the behind-the-striker role.
A raft of half-time substitutes injected Australia with some renewed enthusiasm, with the likes of Mile Jedinak, Brett Holman and Carl Valeri desperately looking to book spots in Verbeek's final 23. Youngster Dario Vidosic, who started the match, swooped for an opportunistic strike on the hour and both the creator in Valeri and the finisher in Holman of Australia's crafty last-minute winner will have put themselves in their coach's thinking.
The home fans would have gone home happy with both the victory and the contributions of some of the fringe characters in Australia's World Cup picture but it's the Socceroos' first XI who should be the focus - the fact half of them were not fit for this match is a worrying sign of an aging team when their immense fitness was such a strength under the German sun.
This match will have helped Verbeek decide on who should fill out the darker reaches of his squad, but the team he needs to get results still selects itself when fit and it's disruptive that he will have to wait until the June 1 friendly against Denmark to get the likes of Brett Emerton, Mark Schwarzer and Harry Kewell on the pitch.
Herbert too learned the importance of getting his best team on the pitch - the best XI were able to beat an understrength Australia in the first half but faded badly against a Socceroos second string after substitutions on each side.
New Zealand, limited in quality and technique, will fall short of no team in self-belief and squad unity. It will be hard for them to match Australia's second-round achievement of 2006 but South Africa 2010 surprise packets they will be.
AN OCCASION TO REMEMBER?
A memorable last-minute goal by maligned midfielder Brett Holman gave the crowd something to cheer about but the lack of a sell-out crowd and party atmosphere showed that World Cup fever hasn't quite hit Australian shores as hard as it did four years ago, and that a higher profile opponent than New Zealand may have been a better option.
New Zealand's captain and the heart of their back three is a steadying influence for the team. His experience and quality almost outweighs that of his team-mates combined, and his presence gives them the belief they can match it with high-quality teams. Both Nelsen's leadership and defensive nous will be key if the All Whites are to spring an upset or two in South Africa.
ALL WHITE NIGHT
The iconic MCG features a flock of seagulls who generously share the pitch with any sporting competitors, but at times they made it look like there was an extra white shirt or two on the pitch. Added to the impressive band of travelling New Zealand fans, Ricki Herbert's men would have felt right at home.
A performance typical of Australia under Verbeek, doing just enough to win and not an iota more. Without a physical target man or genuine playmaker behind the striker, the 4-2-3-1 becomes predictable and static. Australia's plan against the better teams they will face at the World Cup will be to defend stoutly, hit on the break capitalise on set pieces - they aren't suited to playing against a weaker opposition who concede possession and sit back themselves. Australia need their first-line stars back on deck sooner rather than later for the sake of their preparation.
NEW ZEALAND VERDICT
By the time Australia netted their last-ditch winner, Herbert had an experimental team on the pitch. He will focus more on the positive signs of the first half than the final result. New Zealand 'did an Australia' on Australia, showing that organisation, teamwork and effort can nullify superior opposition on the day. Keeping their first-choice players fit will be key, but on this evidence, the All Whites won't be the World Cup pushovers some expect them to be.