Manageable group leaves Australia primed for positive World Cup
As Fabio Cannavaro scooped the fourth ball out of pot 4 at the 2018 World Cup draw in Moscow, football fans on the other side of the world -- those who weren't sound asleep, anyway -- grinned with anticipation.
Australia were dealt a much more user-friendly group stage draw than the past three World Cup finals they had qualified for, but the context on this occasion created the intrigue.
In this instance, the Socceroos are without a coach, following the exit of Ange Postecoglou from the post last month. Circumstances surrounding his departure remain clouded, but there is now a sense of having come full circle since he took charge four years ago.
As fate would have it, the Socceroos' first opponent in Russia will be France. Coincidentally, it was during their last encounter with Les Bleus -- a 6-0 friendly drubbing in Paris in October 2013 -- that it was decided drastic change was needed. One phone call from Football Federation Australia (FFA) chief David Gallop later, and then-manager Holger Osieck was sacked. Enter the Postecoglou era.
The team had already qualified for Brazil 2014 at that stage, but were rudderless and without identity, often playing negative football with the hope of eking out a result.
Under a homegrown coach in Postecoglou, however, the Australian national team went on to enjoy unprecedented success, winning the 2015 Asian Cup and performing admirably through the 2017 Confederations Cup and the recent World Cup qualification campaign. Moreover, the team developed a robust, bold playing style which sat well with an increasingly impatient football-loving community in Australia.
With Postecoglou now gone, there exists great potential for the incoming head coach, whoever that might be. With a more pleasant than expected group, which also includes fellow playoff winners Peru and Denmark, the possibility of retaining the team's newfound identity while gaining results on the world stage is enticing.
Make no mistake, though, France are deserved favourites to top the group, and anything more than a defeat in the opening game would be an outstanding result for Australia's incoming manager. Indeed, even a narrow loss would probably position the Socceroos well for the remainder of the group stage.
The other teams will be hopeful of progressing to the round of 16 along with Didier Deschamps' men, but only one, of course, will make it.
Denmark possess one of the most dangerous players in the group in Tottenham star Christian Eriksen, whose ability to create chances promises to be a highlight of Group C action. His flair has been a feature of Denmark's 11-game unbeaten streak.
Peru, meanwhile, will rely on a defensive unit which conceded only seven goals in eight qualifiers this year, particularly as leading goalscorer Paolo Guerrero is facing a lengthy ban if found guilty of doping -- the 33-year-old Flamengo striker is awaiting the result of his appeal at a FIFA disciplinary hearing on Thursday.
For their part, Australia will be buoyed by the fact that Peru were not entirely convincing in their two-legged playoff win over New Zealand, while Denmark also struggled at home to Ireland in their playoff before finding form in a 5-1 demolition in Dublin.
The Socceroos' youthful squad will be balanced by the experience of the country's all-time leading goalscorer Tim Cahill, and their chances will likely hinge on a midfield containing Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic and Mile Jedinak.
Of course, so much also relies on whoever takes charge of the team. Reported candidates include Marcelo Bielsa, Luis Zubeldia, Graham Arnold and, intriguingly, Frenchman Laurent Blanc.
One of these men, or another available manager altogether, will be appointed by an independent selection panel, with FIFA poised to take over from FFA as a bitter divide and power struggle threatens to derail Australia's governing body. That too will shape the Socceroos' journey to Russia 2018.
Astonishingly, even with so much uncertainty surrounding the team, there is much to be optimistic about when it comes to Australia's chances of performing strongly at next year's World Cup. And that is a great testament to Postecoglou, who has evidently left the national team in a far better state than when he took over at that low point prior to the last World Cup.
When Australia's players step onto the pitch against France at Kazan Arena on June 16, no doubt dark thoughts of the heavy defeat in 2013 will arise. But understanding how far the national team has developed in that time will offer a glimmer of hope, and that could be just the positivity needed to progress from a tricky but manageable group.
Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks