Socceroos fail to compete with Germany
Australia paid the price for conceding defeat to Germany before they'd even stepped on the pitch with their 4-0 horror show in Durban.
Even though the upcoming Group D clashes with Ghana and Serbia were always going to be the deciding fixtures for Australia's hopes of reaching the second round, the Socceroos' World Cup prospects took a severe beating thanks to the humiliation dished out by the Germans on Sunday.
Pim Verbeek and his players will no doubt spend the coming days telling us that 1-0, 4-0 or 10-0, the size of the Germany loss is inconsequential and that Ghana and Serbia are the real targets and were all along. To an extent they are right: when the draw was announced it was clear Australia's most likely route to the second round would be via four or six points from the two weaker group opponents, with any result against the Germans considered a bonus.
But being prepared to accept a loss should it come is quite different to approaching a match as if the result is fait accompli. Now the Socceroos will be forced to rebound from their heaviest defeat in recent memory to regain the competitive edge they are usually renowned for.
Given the relative importance of the Ghana fixture over this one, the loss of talismanic midfielder Tim Cahill through suspension is even more costly than the unflattering scoreline. The decision of card-happy referee Julian Rodriguez Santiago to give Cahill a straight red for a challenge on Bastian Schweinsteiger, in which he lunged in from behind but appeared to pull out at the last minute, will have infuriated Verbeek.
Hindsight might tell captain Lucas Neill he overplayed the underdog tag by hailing Germany as a "superior team" in the build-up. It was the first sign Australia would be relying on complacency from their opposition, or hoping to dump excess pressure on the shoulders of Germany's second youngest World Cup squad rather than go out and have a genuine crack at the three-time winners.
Neill's observation proved true as Germany put on a clinical, fluid and dynamic showcase of penetrative attacking football to dismantle Australia's much-vaunted defensive structure. Four different scorers and a hatful of missed chances reflected the total domination enjoyed by Germany's attackers.
Such was Germany's performance, Australia would have been extremely lucky to get a result out of their opening fixture even at their best. Regardless, they gave themselves next to no chance of competing in the match with their negative philosophy and personnel selections.
In contrast to the 2006 World Cup, when Guus Hiddink tapped into the Australian 'have a go' psyche to instil this same group of players with the belief they could take on anyone and win, Verbeek has moulded his team into a dour defensive unit whose consistently disciplined performances eased them through their first qualifying campaign in the Asian confederation.
Verbeek famously employed a 4-6-0 formation away to Japan to come home with a valuable point during qualification. With the surprise omission of both Harry Kewell and Josh Kennedy, Verbeek reprised his containment strategy in the hope of a similar result in the World Cup proper.
But toothless Japan and explosive Germany are different prospects. By sitting back in the hope of holding out and holding on, Australia gave Germany the freedom they needed to make their inevitable bursting runs in behind, with crafty cutbacks and clinical strikes.
Jason Culina was employed on the left of midfield in place of Mark Bresciano, who is defensively suspect, to thwart Philipp Lahm's influence and Richard Garcia was the surprise selection as a roving forward, bursting into the channels on the counter-attack. While the reunited right-side pairing of Luke Wilkshire and Brett Emerton held their own, Lahm and Thomas Muller dominated down Australia's weaker left side where the ever-slowing centre-back and full-back combination of Craig Moore and Scott Chipperfield were exposed for pace time and again.
Cahill's best work is done when ghosting into dangerous positions while a genuine striker distracts the opposition defence. Without Kennedy or Kewell on the pitch, he was often left to lead the charge alone and his threat was reduced significantly as a result.
And when Germany took an early lead and Australia's Plan A was ruined, they appeared unable to flick the switch and turn their negative approach into a positive one. They failed to press higher up the pitch or lift the tempo of the match, and when it came to substitutions, Verbeek opted to bring on his young fringe players in an attempt to save his leading stars for the Ghana test.
As Monday's dawn arrives in Australia, their supporters will be wondering if this is the result to mark the twilight of this golden generation of players. Only the next two games will confirm or dispel that notion for sure.
But by sitting back and waiting to be beaten, the Socceroos made certain they wouldn't earn what would have been another landmark result for this team.