Socceroos enjoy Australia Day party
Australia Day truly was Australia's day as the Socceroos kicked off their nation's annual celebrations with a 6-0 party victory at the expense of a hapless Uzbekistan in their first ever Asian Cup semi-final.
It might not have quite been January 26 at the Khalifa Stadium but it was for those faithful fans braving the early morning kick off back home and it was worth every minute of missed sleep as they witnessed one of their nation's greatest ever victories, in terms of both context and magnitude.
It is important to state when measuring Australia's performance that Uzbekistan bordered on embarrassing on the night. They gave up completely during the second half to leave their supporters justifiably upset. But Australia can nonetheless reflect on a magic night in their football history while now looking forward with eager anticipation to a mouth-watering final with Asian rivals Japan on Saturday.
So many stories emerged from this incredible result that the headline writers will struggle to know where to turn first. The 6-0 scoreline is in itself noteworthy: Australia will play their annual Australia Day cricket fixture against England later on but a nation will arise to find the first six has already been hit.
But the incredible display of A-League star Matt McKay in his arrival as a national team lynchpin perhaps transcends the rout that resulted. And Mark Schwarzer could not have scripted a more memorable match for his record-equalling 87th appearance for his country, joining Alex Tobin as the most-capped Socceroo. Then there was Holger Osieck's performance in the dugout. The German coach masterminded Canada's victory in the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup shortly after arriving there and he showed the golden touch with his selections and substitutions to play his part in this triumph.
There were first international goals for two men who arrived at that point via very different routes in Sasa Ognenovski and Robbie Kruse. But above anything there was simply the result, a confirmation of Australia's standing amongst Asia's elite and the burying of the demons born out of their ill-fated inaugural campaign of four years ago. Osieck deserves credit for having everyone in the Australia squad pulling in the same direction.
The Socceroos could not have progressed to the final in a more contrasting fashion to their fellow finalists. Japan could have played their final to overcome South Korea in the earlier semi, a dramatic penalty shootout victory after a draining 2-2 draw. The biggest challenge now for Australia could be the need to keep their feet on the ground and quickly refocus on the decider. They should rightly feel on top of the world but, as they say, they haven't won nothin' yet.
Osieck surprised most by making perhaps the obvious selection: sticking with a winning team despite the availability of Brett Emerton after suspension. But this was no blind reward for the 1-0 win over Iraq. Osieck identified the advantage of having McKay play ahead of David Carney on the left side of his 4-4-2, with right-sided Brett Holman cutting inside ahead of the stronger of his full-backs, Luke Wilkshire, giving his side its best balance.
Vadim Abramov tinkered with his team, bringing in experienced full-back Victor Carpenko and Anzur Ismailov into a back four as part of five changes. Goalkeeper Temur Juraev was instated despite Uzbekistan's win over Jordan in the quarters, and the overhaul proved fateful as a disjointed side capitulated from the off. The Uzbeks dominated possession for the first hour of the match, pressing Australia on the ball to win it back and throwing men forward in attack. But it proved to be a disastrous strategy. Uzbekistan never produced the quality of passing required to penetrate Australia and their constant turnovers left them horribly exposed to Australian counter-attacks.
Some industrious work by McKay and his midfield colleagues Mile Jedinak and Carl Valeri helped protect their back four and win ball in advantageous positions, but in truth the Uzbeks showed their opponents nowhere near the respect they deserve. Odil Akhmedov, a central midfielder and fine passer of the ball, was filling in at centre back. He showed little regard for his defensive responsibilities as he stepped out to start attacks, only to see his positioning exploited on the defensive transition.
A superb turn and pass by McKay to Harry Kewell helped get the scoring underway as early as the fifth minute, and the Brisbane Roar midfielder would lay on another pair of assists in a majestic performance. Nimble East Asian players sometimes run rings around the more rugged Australian physical prototypes but McKay reversed the roles as he buzzed about from box to box while the Uzbeks stood mesmerised.
On a record-making day for Australia, defender Sasa Ognenovski scored his first international goal with a close-range finish after Tim Cahill knocked down a deep free-kick. McKay and Ognenovski made it a miserable day for Osieck's predecessor, Pim Verbeek, who had once infamously claimed it was better to train in Europe than to play in the A-League, and who had persistently ignored Ognenovski despite Australia's ongoing problems in central defence. Melbourne Victory striker Robbie Kruse would later join Ognenovski in notching his first international strike, making it a red-letter day for the A-League indeed.
The second half arrived and the pattern remained the same. Australia simply had to defend stoutly as they have done all tournament and the opportunities soon presented themselves. Carney learned from his first-half missed chance, when an attempted chip was saved well by Juraev, by blasting his next McKay-provided chance low, hard, and straight through the goalkeeper. The Uzbeks gave up at that point and the final half hour became a shooting gallery. The final score could have been much worse if not for the ridiculous decision-making of the assistant referee in Australia's attacking half, who drew the anger of Osieck with a string of incorrect offside flags.
It wouldn't matter, as Emerton, Valeri and Kruse helped themselves to goals, all involving Kruse, McKay or a combination of both in the lead-up. Osieck had the luxury of handing Kewell and Cahill early baths. Ulugbek Bakaev received his second yellow for a reckless tackle as the Uzbeks lost all discipline and pride. The only thing that could have gone better for the Socceroos might have been a first international goal for cursed striker Scott McDonald, who had to watch on from the bench as his team-mates ran riot.
The final promises to be another fascinating clash of football cultures as the consistent, disciplined Socceroos try to hold out against the technical masters of Japan. The tournament's most exciting attack will look to penetrate its finest defence, backed by a goalkeeper set to become Australia's most capped player. While a 6-0 scoreline is almost certainly out of the question for either side, Australia will ride into the final with every confidence they can make more history.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Matt McKay The diminutive midfielder excelled in all areas of the pitch; swooping in to make tackles in his own box, nicking possession in midfield and laying goals on a platter for team-mates up front. His ascent from A-League regular to Socceroo stand-out in less than a year has been hard to believe. Brisbane Roar coach Ange Postecoglou will be glowing with pride seeing his superb football of this season transferred to the national side; in fact, McKay's angular movements and accurate passing have even given Osieck's side an extra edge in retaining possession and creating chances.
AUSTRALIA VERDICT The Uzbekistan implosion makes it hard to judge the Socceroos on this occasion. Japan almost certainly played a better match earlier despite only drawing with Korea. Australia's professionalism and competitive mentality mean they will win by default when opponents don't show up to play. But regardless of their rivals' failure to compete, this was the best Australian performance of the tournament. Osieck has discovered his best-balanced XI, and he has a bench bulging with confident, match-sharp players. They have every chance of taking the title.
UZBEKISTAN VERDICT The less said about this abject display the better. It is baffling that they could be so bad having scored eight goals on an impressive run to the last four. Perhaps the team felt beaten before they took to the pitch. They certainly raised the white flag at the hour mark, ensuring there would be an element of shame around their 2011 campaign despite the positivity otherwise. Juraev was the only player set to emerge with any credit after keeping the score respectable before he, symbolically, allowed a Kruse dribbler to slip under his grasp and into the net.