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Thursday, November 10, 2005
ESPNsoccernet: November 11, 11:41 AM UK
We'll meat again...

Derek Rae

I'm here in Buenos Aires, not for the purpose of consuming a month's supply of sirloin steak in three days (although it's virtually a case of beef with everything in this carnivore's paradise.)

In fact, the reason for this trip to the southern hemispehe is to follow the fortunes of Australia, as they try to reach the World Cup finals. Qualification has eluded the Socceroos since 1974.

But why Buenos Aires? After all, isn't Saturday's World Cup play-off first leg to be played on the other side of the River Plate in Montevideo against Uruguay?

Yes, to the latter question, but in the build-up to Saturday's tussle, Buenos Aires is the place to be. Australia have based themselves here, opting to delay their arrival across the border in Uruguay until Friday. FIFA regulations stipulate that the visiting side must be in the actual venue, as of twenty four hours before kick off.

Ah yes, the kick off! After what seems like weeks of political wrangling, we now know that Saturday's match at the Centenario Stadium will start at 6pm local time.

Uruguay will have to race out of the ground like rats up drainpipes if they're to make their scheduled flight to Sydney via Santiago and Auckland, while Australia have their own private charter. Both teams will touch down on Aussie soil on Monday, giving them equal preparation time ahead of the second leg.

Enough though, about travel times and football politics. Much has already been written about both subjects elsewhere. Let's put all that to one side, and concentrate on why we're really here: to talk about what for me, is potentially one of the most absorbing football tussles of the calendar year.

Having spent most of the day on Wednesday around the Australian side, I can report that there's a quiet air of confidence in the camp. No one is beating his chest promising anything, but you get the feeling this is a team on a mission.

I had two very enlightening conversations with strikers Mark Viduka and John Aloisi, snippets of which you'll be able to see on this web site, and on Friday's edition of ESPNSoccernet Press Pass.

Viduka, the captain of the Socceroos in the absence of the injured Craig Moore is relishing the role. He made a point of highlighting the camaraderie that exists between the various members of the current squad. They've all come through the Australian sporting system together, and watched with head in hands, as those who wore the colours before them, tried and failed.

For Viduka, this is not a new experience. Devastated at Australia's elimination by this same Uruguay side four years ago, many thought he might quit the national team altogether. Instead, the big Middlesboro forward buckled down and his commitment to the cause cannot be questioned.

It's clear too that Viduka is thrilled to be working under new manager Guus Hiddink. At the Wednesday news conference, the captain, when asked about Australia's 2001 elimination in Montevideo, was blunt with the assembled media. 'We were not prepared tactically. We needed to be more organised and really didn't work on too much.'

Cleverly, Viduka refused to go any further and didn't mention Frank Farina by name, but the point was made in no uncertain tearms that he feels Australia have taken a giant step forward by appointing Hiddink.

What interested me most about my chat with John Aloisi was his honesty regarding Uruguay's style of play. Aloisi, of the Spanish Primera club Alaves, counts a few of the Spanish-based Uruguayans amongst his closest friends. Aloisi played with Pablo Garcia and Richard Morales at his old club Osasuna.

Yet there were no platitudes when I asked him about the style of play favoured by Uruguay. Far from dispelling the notion that Uruguay play to the limit of the laws, the big striker smiled and expressed his belief that talk about an overly ruthless approach 'is not overblown at all.'

What was refreshing however, was that win or lose in ther next few days, Aloisi will be able to maintain his off-field friendship with Garcia and Morales, and no doubt shake each other warmly by the throat!

But now to the question all Aussies want answered. How are the Socceroos going to line up on Saturday? The honest answer is, no one can be sure. Hiddink, unusually for a Dutchman (in my experience they tend to be brutally honest about most things) has been wearing his best poker face all week.

Everyone, (especially the Spanish speaking scribes) wants to talk to Hiddink. Sensibly, the national team press officer Stuart Hodge has restricted his media appearances, letting the players, most of whom are very articulate, face the music, while the manager gets on with the job of plotting Uruguay's downfall.

I can tell you there are about five possible Australian formations doing the rounds. Lucas Neill, Scott Chipperfield, Brett Emerton, Tony Vidmar, Vince Grella (if fit) and Mark Viduka are almost certain starters irrespective of the team's shape. After that, all bets are off.

In goal, Mark Schwarzer, who you would think the obvious choice, has genuine competition in the form of Zeljko Kalac, a keeper Hiddink knows well from his time in Holland with Roda. Don't be stunned if Kalac gets the nod.

Craig Moore's absence means there's a void at centre back. Tony Popovic, Ljubo Milicevic and Michael Thwaite are battling for that position.

Popovic, who has been virtually a spectator at Crystal Palace this season was used more prominently in that role at training the other day. Milicevic, whose stock has risen thanks to fine Champions League displays with FC Thun, is strong in the air, but perhaps a little slow. Thwaite of the Romanian club National Bucharest, and a debutant in the recent 5-0 hammering of Jamaica would be the choice of many. There's a suspicion though that Wednesday's second leg in Sydney might be an occasion more in tune with his level of experience.

Grella, the ideal man to have protecting a back four should overcome his fitness worries. The same can't be said of his Parma teammate Marko Bresciano, who's suffering from an ankle injury.

Jason Culina, a player Hiddink is so impressed with, he recently signed him for his club side PSV, must have a real chance of starting on the right hand side. Archie Thompson, the solitary Australian based player in the squad has been used prominently by Hiddink in training, and looks set to be involved at some stage over the course of the two legs.

But what about the most enigmatic Aussie player of them all Harry Kewell? I'll admit to you I'm a huge Kewell admirer and have felt very sorry for him since his move from Leeds to Liverpool. He cut a sad figure when I watched him limp off the field at the Atatürk Stadium in the opening few minutes of last season's Champions League final.

After two groin operations and limited activity with Liverpool this season, can Hiddink afford to risk him on Saturday? My gut feeling tells me the answer to that question is yes. You need quality in a match of this importance and Kewell could be ideal for a floating role behind lone striker Viduka.

The two matches in Montevideo and Sydney could well differ in tempo and as regards personnel. Hiddink will be mindful of the fact that seven of his players are one caution away from a second leg suspension. For the record, the men in question are Tim Cahill, Brett Emerton, Zeljko Kalac, Lucas Neill, John Aloisi, Vince Grella and Marko Bresciano.

If you're reading this in Australia, and your heart is pumping wildly at the thought of these two forthcoming matches, I hope you'll join me live on television for the Friday night edition of ESPNSoccernet Press Pass from the Boca district of this enchanting city. I'll be on with all the news from the Australian camp as they board the plane for Uruguay. Adrian Healey will fill my usual studio chair, while Tommy Smyth and Janusz Michallik will give us their views on the tie.

Then, on Monday night, I'll be joining you from Sydney with post-match reaction on the heels of the Montevideo leg, and a look ahead to what we can expect at Telstra Stadium.

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I think I can just squeeze in one more colossal piece of Argentine meat before arriving in Darling Harbour!


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