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Jan 10, 2011

Socceroos exploit naive India

Australia opened their World Cup campaign in South Africa with a fateful 4-0 loss to Germany and although the Socceroos didn't exactly match the standard of performance of their European conquerors, they enjoyed a carefree victory over India by the same scoreline to get their Asian Cup campaign underway in Qatar's heat.

Much like Australia in their Durban nightmare, India's match strategy was neither here nor there in the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, and they paid for it. English coach Bob Houghton has precious little time to decide whether to revise towards damage-limitation for the rest of India's Group C fixtures or stick with what was a surprisingly positive but ultimately ill-advised approach against one of the tournament favourites.

This was mission accomplished for the Socceroos as they now look ahead to tougher tests against Bahrain and South Korea with three points and a healthy goal difference under their belts, although some questions over their selections and tactics remain. Expectations are high back home but fans will be concerned that victory, however comfortable, was achieved more by weight of their superior professionalism than by a systematic, ruthless dismantling of a minnow opponent who was there for the taking.

It can be difficult to accurately judge a team against such an inferior combatant but it is hard to imagine the Asian Cup's other heavyweights feeling particularly worried about the form of this Australian side on this evidence. Tim Cahill helped himself to a double in a striker's role that arguably serves the team better at his expense; Harry Kewell showed his star quality with a blistering long-range strike and Australia's World Cup breakout player Brett Holman nodded home a cross from the right wing, the key source of joy for the Socceroos.

Holger Osieck employed an expansive 4-4-2 with Cahill and Kewell paired up front and Bretts Emerton and Holman pushing high down the flanks. Mile Jedinak, the midfield destroyer, was deemed necessary to partner Jason Culina in the centre of a park in a sign that Osieck was using this match to let his strongest team rehearse together, having not played the first XI in Australia's only warm-up against UAE last week. However, Jedinak's lumbering frame doesn't appear suited to nimble Asian opposition and the superior distribution skills of the likes of Matt McKay, who came on for him, or Neil Kilkenny, could see the midfielder's place come under pressure.

Australian full-backs David Carney and Luke Wilkshire stretched the field wide and the Socceroos often found themselves playing consecutive passes of more than 30 yards just to find each other, such was their use of the limits of the pitch. The result was a lack of short passing and positional interchanges, a style of play the Socceroos may need to develop against defences that nullify their obvious strengths out wide.

India set their stall out with a surprisingly high line, perhaps wary that sitting deep in their box would invite Cahill's aerial prowess to lead to inevitable consequences. But just as the Germans did to the Socceroos, the Aussies quickly exposed the space left behind the defence as Emerton broke the offside trap and set up Cahill for a simple tap in after 11 minutes.

Indian strikers Sunil Chhetri and Mohammed Rafi, in for injured captain and national football icon Baichung Bhutia, were another surprising feature of Houghton's tactics. Neither looked to drop off to help plug the midfield, instead pressing the Australian centre backs well into their half. It forced the Socceroos to rush the ball forward rather than maintain patient possession but the space that was left at the back was exploited by Kewell as he found time and room to unleash his deadly strike into the bottom corner from 20 yards.

India left-back Deepak Mandal had a particularly torrid time in the first half and only the brilliance and resilience of goalkeeper Suprata Paul kept the score down as Emerton supplied a barrage of crosses from Australia's right. Australia's aerial superiority was clear but they overcooked the searching diagonal cross from deeper positions, instead finding more joy when Emerton whipped in another ball from the byline for Holman to nod home on the stroke of half time.

India tired in the second half and Australia mercifully took their collective foot off the pedal, although there was time for Cahill to score his obligatory header, rising up from the pack in trademark fashion in the 65th minute. The substantial Indian support gave the match an odd atmosphere by bursting into life during their side's precious few forays forward, and falling silent for the rest of the time. Hard-working Chhetri was the source of most of their hope and he had a golden chance for a goal to bring the house down but he didn't have the composure to get a shot away when released behind a sleepy Australian defence late on.

With an unlikely chance of progression now requiring a miracle for India, Houghton must surely organise his team into a deep, compact shape in the hope of holding out South Korea, before perhaps opening up against Bahrain in the final match. India are one of world football's potential sleeping giants and they will learn a lot just from being at the Asian Cup, but they didn't show Australia the respect they deserved and could have been humiliated if not for Suprata's heroics and the Socceroos' lack of efficiency up front.

Osieck might not have learned much new about his team but while Australian fans debate whether four goals was 'enough' against such a weak opponent, the German will be quietly tinkering with his gameplan in the hope of turning Australia into genuine title contenders.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Brett Emerton. The Blackburn man had an acre to himself on the right wing but he generally timed his runs well to exploit the space left for him and chipped in with a couple of tidy assists.

AUSTRALIA VERDICT: Professional if not dazzling, Australia's superior quality told on the scoreboard. They stretched the field and made the most of their crossing positions with their superior physical presence in the box.

INDIA VERDICT: A gallant defeat, well beaten but far from disgraced. India lack the technical quality to threaten on the counter and the tactical discipline to hang onto a result. Their ambitious tactics didn't work out and although admirable, Houghton's men may have been better served getting behind the ball in numbers.

ONE-WAY ATMOSPHERE: Credit to the Indian fans, and perhaps a few locals cheering for an upset, who provided fanatical vocal support for the underdogs - but only on the odd occasion they had the ball.

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