The Socceroos’ year of living dangerously reaches a moment of truth tonight when The Asian Cup favourites face Iraq in Bangkok. With Thailand having secured all three points against Oman in last night’s other Group A match, a win for the Aussies tonight is essential if they are to top the group heading into the knockout stage of the competition.
And just like Guy Hamilton, the protagonist in Christopher Koch’s novel about an Aussie journalist turning up in South East Asia only to find that his easy life in the tropics was going to be a lot more complicated than he imagined, the Socceroos have discovered that in this intriguing tournament, nothing can be taken for granted.
Reputations and big European league experience count for little in the unrelenting heat and humidity against largely anonymous opponents who ply their trade in leagues across the vastness of Asia.
Sunday’s sluggish performance against Oman spoke of a team still yet to get to grips with their circumstance. With only one warm up match against Singapore (and another amongst themselves) the Socceroos are dangerously under prepared for the rigours of tournament football. The whole thing can pass you by very quickly if you don’t come to play. Just ask then defending World Champions France, who turned up to the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea still thinking about the duty free shopping they had planned. They were on their way home 10 days later.
At the back, the Socceroos look porous. Patrick Kisnorbo’s return to the national team was made possible by his growing reputation at Leicester City as an uncompromising leader of the Foxes’ defence. So far he seems more like a fox trapped in the cross-hairs and his pairing with Lucas Neill needs to click now if the Socceroos are to succeed.
Graham Arnold is likely to consider Michael Beauchamp in place of Kisnorbo, though Sydney FC’s Mark Milligan could be an option.
Arnold will also be looking for more attacking threat from mid-field and the introduction of Brett Holman late in the game against Oman suggests that the man from Bankstown might get his chance to sit in behind Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell and provide them the sort of service that was absent Sunday.
For both veteran superstars the tournament opener proved frustrating. Both were tightly marked and found the rhythm of the game frustrating. For Kewell the game marked an important milestone in his attempts to return to the ranks of the world’s best: it was his first full game since that magic night against Croatia in Stuttgart over 12 months ago.
Mark Bresciano was not his influential self in the first game and the man whose uncompromising industry on the pitch has been the engine room of recent Socceroos success seems to be off-the-boil. His absence from free kick duties is also a worry because Luke Wilkshire seems more inclined to put the bowl into row F of the stands rather than the back of the net.
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Despite the conditions, expect a higher tempo game from Australia on the break as they try and assert themselves early in this match.
As for the team from Iraq, well, they remain mostly a mystery and will be the X factor here. Though I’m sure there’s a thing or two they could teach the Aussies about living dangerously.