Australia learn lessons in qualifiers
It may have taken a rude shock against a 120th-ranked Thailand to stun Australia into action, but, on the evidence of their convincing 3-1 win over Saudi Arabia on Tuesday night, it appears the Socceroos are back on track in their bid to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
Goals either side of the half-time interval from Nagoya Grampus front-man Josh Kennedy, plus a late penalty from Luke Wilkshire, secured maximum points for Australia in Dammam and, perhaps more importantly, showed a mentality which will be crucial to their qualification hopes.
Australia's relative on-field success in recent years has certainly brought with it a heightened level of expectation from the general public, that victory over lower-ranked nations is a given. After all, if this January's Asian Cup - where Australia lost the final in extra-time to Japan - is a guide, the Socceroos should rightly expect their results to rival any nation in Asia.
Accurately or not, though, their opponents throughout the continent often see Australia - a relative newcomer to the Asian Football Confederation - as portraying arrogance. The Socceroos, then, did their reputation no favours with the attitude they brought onto the pitch against Thailand in Brisbane last Friday.
Not that Holger Osieck's men played thuggish football, or acted in an unprofessional manner. But the seemingly thoughtless approach they masqueraded as a game plan reeked of a team playing with an air of entitlement.
Australia came out against Thailand as though the three points were a mere formality. The individuals on the pitch in green and gold played a constant barrage of balls into the penalty area; hopeful one would eventually lead to a goal and, once scored, would break down the Thai's confidence and open the floodgates for them to play.
As they discovered, they needed to play in order to break their opponents down. Down the other end, a swift counter-attack was finished off by Teerasil Dangda as the War Elephants took a first-half lead.
The half-time break in that match could prove the turning point in the Socceroos' march toward Brazil in 2014. That moment, the players seemingly remembered the years of struggle their predecessors endured in their attempts to qualify for the World Cup. They realised what they needed to do in order to play to their potential as a team and, indeed, looked like they understood what was at stake.
In the second-half, new Rangers recruit Matt McKay pushed forward, making overlapping runs, while Fortuna Dusseldorf striker Robbie Kruse was brought on to create space for those around him. The penetration of McKay was a key factor in both goals as Australia escaped with a 2-1 win. Finally, it seemed, the Australians were showing the urgency and energy required to qualify for a World Cup.
Against Saudi Arabia in Dammam on Tuesday, Osieck's side managed to manifest a dynamic, purposeful performance from the outset amid the desert heat. The team attacked with verve, backed by a level of composure and assuredness in defence.
Nowhere on the pitch was the difference between Australia's first two games of qualification more evident than on the right flank. Where Wilkshire and Brett Emerton looked like they had their studs stuck in the Suncorp soil against the Thais, the duo were in perpetual motion against Frank Rijkaard's men. The movement and intensity shown - in conjunction with that of Brett Holman, playing as a second striker - stretched the Saudi Arabian defence and gave them constant challenges to overcome throughout the 90 minutes.
The Saudis created chances of their own through the likes of Nawaf Alabid, Abdullaziz Al Dossari and Naif Hazazi, but were always forced to take a reactive approach as the Australians dictated the tempo.
Many will focus on Everton's Tim Cahill being dropped from the starting line-up, or McKay's positional shift into midfield to accommodate FC Utrecht left-back Michael Zullo for the clash at the Prince Muhammad bin Fahd Stadium. These were, of course, pivotal factors from a tactical standpoint, and well worth noting. However, if the Socceroos had made these changes without carrying over the requisite shift in mindset, the Saudi Arabian sojourn could well have proved a meltdown point in their campaign.
Moving forward, Osieck and his unbeaten charges are now in a tremendous position to forge on to the fourth round of qualification - particularly after Oman's heavy defeat at the hands of Thailand in the other Group D encounter, which included another goal from the lively Dangda.
There is no doubt Australia has the personnel to qualify, and they appear to have a coach able to guide them there, but it will be their attitude against their continental neighbours which will see them carry on the job. Along the way, they may even earn the respect of their neighbours and change the perception of Australian football.
Indeed, Osieck summed it up when he told Fox Sports after the triumph in the Middle East: "We have to consider not only the performance tonight, the boys showed a great attitude. I'm very happy with our performance today, the boys did extremely well.
"So far we've got 100% of what we could have got, and now we must carry on, but we can't be complacent. Next home game against Oman, they shouldn't be underrated. It's a must win and then we've made a major step forward."
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