Mile Jedinak's Socceroos must prepare for 'hot soup' World Cup playoff
It will be an almighty shock to the system when Australia's Europe-based players arrive in Malaysia next weekend ahead of their AFC World Cup qualifier against Syria on Oct. 5.
Mile Jedinak has a Saturday afternoon home game with Aston Villa against Bolton Wanderers. Aaron Mooy's Huddersfield Town host Tottenham Hotspur while Tom Rogic's Celtic will face Hibernian at Celtic Park, both on the same day.
If the 13-hour flight wasn't enough, then there'll be a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to the city of Malacca, on the southern end of the Malay Peninsula. And once they step out of their air-conditioned comfort, they'll be engulfed by high humidity and temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Celsius, in contrast to the cool stadiums of early autumn they've left behind in Britain.
"They won't know what's hit them... it will feel like playing in hot soup," former Singapore international John Wilkinson told ESPN FC. "Having the game in Malacca, even though [the Hang Jebat Stadium] is a neutral venue, is a huge advantage for the Syrians."
Wilkinson once swapped the helter-skelter of England's lower leagues with Exeter City for a chance to play international football with Singapore. He arrived in 2002 as a 22-year-old, and would earn 30 international caps, participating in the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, and twice facing Syria.
He says that coach Ange Postecoglou, who has received heavy criticism for sticking stubbornly to his short-passing and pressing principles in preference to pragmatism, will need to carefully think out his tactics to avoid an embarrassing defeat to the war-torn minnows.
"It will be too hot and humid to play at high intensity for 90 minutes against a team who are more accustomed to the conditions, and boast a 100 percent record in Malacca," Wilkinson said.
"Australia must play the first leg in three blocks. First, hold and feel Syria out. Second, boss possession and move Syria around. Third -- probably in the last 20 minutes -- press, and play high tempo."
Australia's record in Southeast Asia over the past decade is poor. They won only one of four games in the 2007 Asian Cup in Bangkok and Hanoi, and could only draw 0-0 away to Singapore in a 2008 friendly. And, more recently, they were lucky to escape with a 2-2 result against Thailand in Bangkok in a third-round World Cup qualifier last November.
Wilkinson played in the 0-0 draw in March 2008 against the Harry Kewell-captained Socceroos, which was also Jedinak's debut, at the old Singapore National Stadium.
After seeming to be on the periphery when Australia performed well without him at June's Confederations Cup, Jedinak has re-emerged after the team's unconvincing performances against Japan (2-0 defeat) and Thailand (2-1 win) saw the Asian champions fail to secure an automatic qualifying berth.
The 33-year-old captain hasn't represented his nation since March due to a groin injury. He only made his Aston Villa comeback last week, but Postecoglou didn't hesitate to include the giant midfielder in his 30-man preliminary squad for the AFC playoff.
The Socceroos have lost their way, somewhat, and will need strong leaders for a deceptively difficult showdown. While the ex-Central Coast Mariners star might be exposed on the break by the pacey Syrians, his physical presence, not to mention his sangfroid from the penalty spot, could make the difference.
Arriving only three days before a competitive match in Southeast Asia, with no warm-up friendly, seems risky. But Malaysia-based former Socceroo Brad Maloney predicts that Postecoglou's staff will be well prepared.
"Coming from cooler climates of Europe or Australia in early spring may require a few days for the players to adapt. However, the professionalism within the current Socceroos has never been higher, and with the match being played in the evening, I'm positive the team will perform extremely well," Maloney, a coach within the Malaysian national setup, told ESPN FC.
The worst thing that Australia could do, Wilkinson and Maloney agree, is to underestimate a Syrian team who secured a 2-2 away draw with Asia's No. 1-ranked nation, Iran, in their last qualifier on Sept. 5.
"Considering Syria's 100 percent record in Malacca, I'd approach the match with caution and respect for the opposition, while being confident of achieving a positive result," Maloney said. "Any score draw, or better, would be a positive result."
And Jedinak, who made his international debut in Southeast Asia almost a decade ago and scored both goals when Australia drew in Bangkok last year, could have a huge role to play.
Along with Tim Cahill, Mark Milligan and the recalled Nikita Rukavytsya, he's one of only four survivors from the Socceroos' South Africa 2010 squad, when qualifying for a World Cup through Asia seemed a lot more straightforward.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.