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Socceroos facing Syria pale in comparison to past World Cup squads

Refereeing decisions, pitch conditions, the heat and humidity as well as membership of the Asian Football Confederation. These complaints, and more, have rattled around in the background as Australia prepare to face Syria once again in their World Cup playoff on Tuesday evening.

The aftermath of anything other than a Socceroos' win has become all too predictable, whether it is the usual complaints from under-performing players or staff seeking to deflect attention from another poor show -- or ill-informed, myopic fans flooding social media with bile.

AustraliaAustralia
SyriaSyria
2
1
FT
Leg 2Aggregate: 3 - 2
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Admittedly, the decision by Iranian referee Alireza Faghani to award the Syrians a penalty in last Thursday's first leg was soft in the extreme. But the 1-1 draw in Malacca, Malaysia, was no less than Ayman Hakeem's side deserved.

Few fans, and even fewer players were questioning decisions that went Australia's way during qualifying. Instead, they preferred to add fuel to the sense of Asian amateurism that fits with the country's overarching impression of the region as a whole.

Australia 2017 playoff team vs. Syria
Despite a majority of Europe-based players, Australia have struggled to impose themselves in Asia qualifying.

Rather than lashing out, Australians need to be taking a look at issues closer to home. While refereeing standards may not be the highest in Asia, the bigger issues surely lie in the quality of the players representing the nation on the global stage.

How, for example, could Australia -- the reigning Asian champions and a team made up of numerous Europe-based players -- allow a side from a war ravaged nation dominate them so completely over the final 30 minutes?

The argument can be made that Syria were better acclimatised to the conditions at their adopted Southeast Asian home. But many within the Socceroos' squad play for clubs where the fitness and conditioning work done day in, day out, will far exceed that practiced by the Middle East-based bulk of the Syrian squad.

Perhaps, then, the real issues are two-fold: Postecoglou's tactical stubbornness is not allowing the team to play to their collective strengths, and the sheer lack of quality within the squad.

The truth is that, when weighed up alongside those have featured in similar playoffs for Australia over the past 20 years, the 2017 Socceroos are found wanting. How many of the current incarnation would make it into the starting lineups of the teams who played in high stakes match-ups in 1997, 2001 or 2005?

Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill celebrate qualifying for 2006 World Cup
Tim Cahill, who celebrated 2006 qualification with Harry Kewell, hopes to push his aging body for another few months.

Leaving aside the aging legs of Tim Cahill, who was at his peak when Australia saw off Uruguay in 2005, it is a stretch to think of anyone who bears positive comparison to his predecessors.

Sure, Huddersfield Town's Aaron Mooy has the quality to light up a game. So, too, Tom Rogic, of Celtic. Brighton's Mat Ryan has proven himself a solid successor to the goalkeeping lineage of Marks Bosnich and Schwarzer. All three can blossom into key performers in the coming years, and would have a fair crack at a place in a 23-man selection in any of the most recent playoff squads. But the rest?

It is hard to see how many of Postecoglou's squad could break into the starting XI who took on Iran over two legs in 1997, a team still seen by some as Australia's finest ever. And none would be likely good enough to justify inclusion in either of the teams that faced off against the Uruguayans in 2001 or 2005.

The team who lost to Iran had youthful exuberance in the shape of Harry Kewell, cool-headed class in Ned Zelic and sheer quality through the deceptive brilliance of Mark Viduka. Later squads had quality performers like Paul Okon, Brett Emerton and Lucas Neill.

Australia 1997 playoff team vs. Iran
The 1997 playoff team boasted Robbie Slater and Ned Zelic, in addition to a young Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell.

Where are their equivalents today? It can be argued that the squad taking part in the ongoing playoff against Syria just aren't good enough. Could Postecoglou's determination to make them follow a system that does not suit their abilities only accentuate the issues?

The Syrians shone late in the firs leg because, after an hour's play, they had worked out how best to put that shaky three-man defence under pressure. The aerial ability of Al Soma, the direct running of Mahmoud Al Mawas, Omar Khribin's endless pressure and the brilliance of Firas Al Khatib's aging legs showed up the cracks in the visitors' armour.

Australia may well advance on Tuesday evening, and might even qualify for the World Cup, but no one should ever mistake the current crop as vintage Socceroos.

Socceroos' Best Playoff XI (from 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2017):

Goalkeeper: Mark Schwarzer

Defenders: Lucas Neill, Craig Moore, Ned Zelic, Stan Lazaridis

Midfielders: Brett Emerton, Paul Okon, Mark Bresciano

Forwards: Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell

Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch

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