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Oct 9, 2010

New coach, same old Socceroos

Holger Osieck's home debut as Australia boss was a happy one as his side pipped Paraguay by David Carney's lone goal in Sydney. But this proved that the questions facing Osieck are no different to those his predecessor Pim Verbeek grappled with.

Osieck has certainly released the shackles on this side and the 25,210 fans in attendance left the ground in high spirits after a more entertaining affair than they had become accustomed to under the pragmatic Dutchman.

But other than a slightly more offensive outlook there was little to discern this Socceroos team from the one that reached and competed at the World Cup. A lack of experimentation showed Osieck is content to spend the precious few matches ahead of the Asian Cup simply refining Verbeek's product, rather than reinventing it.

What would Osieck have learned from this match? Australia's left-hand-side is defensively suspect. The Socceroos struggle to create chances outside of set pieces and percentage balls into the box. Scott McDonald is not effective when leading the line alone. The Australian mentality, combined with Mark Schwarzer's eternal reliability, means this side will regularly find a way to win the tight contests, especially at home. None of this is new.

But that's not to be critical. Any victory over the world's No. 17 team, quarter-finalists in South Africa no less, is not to be sneezed at. The visitors, for their part, showcased glimpses of that famous South American technique amongst a performance of competitive grit, sometimes to a level that could be called 'unfriendly'. It showed they weren't here to lose.

Victor Caceres was tidy and slick in the increasingly trendy deep midfield role. Nelson Valdez was industrious if a little isolated up front. Veteran full-back Carlos Bonet was Paraguay's best attacking outlet as they hunted an equaliser, getting behind the Socceroos defence more than once late on.

But it was the fact that Paraguay also fielded 21-year-olds Derlis Orue and Nestor Camacho that was the main difference, at least on paper, between two evenly matched teams. Osvaldo Martinez is an old coach looking for new options, Osieck is a new coach reviewing old ones.

Australia lined up in a 4-4-1-1 shape with Tim Cahill playing off Josh Kennedy up front, a formation which matched Paraguay's 4-3-3 man-for-man in midfield. The match was a dour battle until Cahill shifted away from Caceres into a proper second striker position midway through the first half, which opened up options for both teams.

The Socceroos had a familiar look to them except for in central defence, where Jade North and Jon McKain were paired in Lucas Neill's injury-enforced absence. In what could have effectively been a trial for the vacant slot next to the injured skipper on his return, both players put in assured performances with McKain the pick of the two, and one of the team's best on the night.

Osieck only included one youthful option in his squad, 23-year-old Dario Vidosic, and his restriction to a cameo off the bench signalled the German's short-term goals. For all the talk about the simultaneous grooming of the 2014 generation whilst getting results now, it's becoming clear Osieck will attack January's Asian Cup head-on before worrying about developing the stars of the future afterwards.

Australia started to threaten Diego Barreto's goal through set-pieces, an obvious outlet considering Kennedy's height, Cahill's leap and the sheer physical presence of Mile Jedinak, interestingly included ahead of Carl Valeri to partner Jason Culina in midfield. Cahill had a header saved at the back post and then Culina smashed a weak clearance goalwards from 25 yards, only to see Barreto make a fine stop.

But the chances brought the crowd into the match and Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura only seemed too happy to oblige their calls for fouls against Paraguay. The one decision that didn't go Australia's way was a penalty shout on the stroke of half-time when Jedinak did appear to be held back when attacking another teasing cross off the Luke Wilkshire production line.

There were no changes at half-time, and no changes to the pattern of the game as Australia tested the diminutive South Americans. Finally the weight of chances told as Carney lashed home a swerving drive after Kennedy's nuisance value caused the ball to run free inside the box.

In a match of three thirds, the lively play reverted back to niggly tedium as the traditional friendly substitutions came thick and fast towards the end. A standing ovation for Harry Kewell, as his appearances in front of his Sydney home crowd start to count down, was one of the only notable end points along with some minor bust-ups in what was at times a spiteful encounter.

All associated with the home team left Sydney Football Stadium with a smile on their face but the only lingering question asks: Is Osieck marching forwards or just marking time?

Australia Verdict: Solid and disciplined as ever but with a new ability to change up a gear in attack. The pedigree of their opponents may have dictated a more measured approach than what we may see in the future. Still one-dimensional in the final third but Holger Osieck considered his boxes ticked and the fans left the ground with smiles on their faces.

Paraguay Verdict: They reached the World Cup quarter-finals with a similar performance to this, a penalty shootout win after a gritty 0-0 draw against Japan. Australia is not an easy road trip and Paraguay allowed themselves to get flustered, getting involved in niggly set-tos with their opponents. However Gerardo Martinez's trip, which also includes a match against New Zealand, is all about regeneration and his youngsters made decent impressions.

The most dedicated Socceroo: Brett Emerton performed admirably on the night, but the suspended winger didn't lace up a boot. Instead, he travelled half a world to be a part of Australia's training squad and then helped out with some all-important ceremonial duties in the pre-match as former Socceroos received their official caps.

Slippin'-and-a-slidin': Players struggled to keep their footing at times on a slippery pitch, contributing to the slow start to the match. Osieck was asked post-match why he had ordered it to be watered before kick-off but the coach said he hadn't since it was wet enough from the moisture that has been around Sydney this week. One wonders whether a surprised Osieck would have been making some enquiries of the groundsman later on.

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