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Maroon's Melbourne mission

January 29, 2008

It was supposed to be the easiest game of Australia's World Cup qualifying campaign, but the February 6th home opener against Qatar has danger written all over it.

GettyImagesAustralia manager Pim Verbeek

Asia's group of death kicks off at Melbourne's Telstra Dome when the slick and well-prepared Gulf side face a rusty Socceroo team who'll be missing some of their biggest stars and playing under a new coach.

With the midweek match taking place on a non-FIFA date, any Europe-based players will have to make the day-long flight home only to arrive 48 hours ahead of kick-off before heading straight back to the northern hemisphere for the following weekend's club matches.

Newcastle United's Mark Viduka won't be there, Liverpool's Harry Kewell is highly doubtful while Tim Cahill is coming under pressure from Everton not to make the trip.

'We said it would be better if Tim Cahill didn't go... he has missed a lot of football and a lot of it has been playing for Australia,' Everton manager David Moyes told the Liverpool Echo.

It is an unfortunate introduction to the coaching hotseat for Pim Verbeek, who took over the job in December and has yet to oversee even a friendly international in his hasty preparation for the game.

With his unwieldy 39-man squad containing 19 overseas-based players, Verbeek has been outspoken in his preference for the big Socceroo names, raising eyebrows by saying that even routine training with European clubs was better preparation for international football than playing in the fledgling A-League.

But the irony is that the Dutchman may end up having to call on several of the locals - with John Aloisi, Craig Moore, Mark Milligan and Joel Griffiths heading the list - because of the likelihood of many last-minute withdrawals.

Qatar, meanwhile, have played three warm-up friendlies and have been in camp under new Uruguayan manager Jorge Fossati for almost a month.

The presence of Fossati will add extra spice to the game: he was the Uruguay coach when the two-time World Cup winners were knocked out by Australia in a play-off for Germany 2006 and is likely to include a couple of South American-born players in his Qatar side for Melbourne.

Former Uruguayan Sebastian Quintana is suspended but ex-Brazilians Fabio Cesar and Marcone Junior are in the squad along with Senegal-born goalkeeper Mohammed Saqr and defender Abdulla Koni.

Backed by oil millions and the football-mad Crown Prince Tammin, Fossati has overseen the shameless transformation of the Q-League's best overseas imports into naturalised Qataris.

Their best locally-reared players are English Premier League reject Yasser Hussein - who made just one League Cup appearance for Manchester City in the 2005-2006 season - and fellow striker, Khalfan Ibrahim, the 2006 Asian player of the year who made his comeback from a serious knee injury in Qatar's 0-0 draw against Iran in Tehran on January 11th. The Qataris rounded off their build-up with a 1-0 home loss to Denmark on January 27th.

Australia will take some comfort from the fact that Qatar had a miserable Asian Cup last year, failing to win a game and missing out on the quarter-finals.

But while the Qataris have never qualified for the World Cup finals, they have had more than their share of regional success: winning the 2004 Gulf Cup and 2006 Asian Games gold medal under previous coach, Dzemaludin Musovic, from Bosnia.

Fossati took over last year after winning the domestic treble with Q-League club, Al Sadd when Musovic's three-year contract expired. Unlike Verbeek, who was appointed less than two months before the Socceroos' campaign, Fossati is settled and familiar with the best players in his domestic championship.

The Qataris are fast and physical and are improving technically. They could employ a similar style to Oman who came close to inflicting a shock defeat on Australia in their Asian Cup opener. The Aussies' record against west Asian sides since joining the AFC two years ago is far from impressive.

With the Socceroos needing to travel to the Middle East for away matches in the summer heat against Qatar and Iraq, Verbeek has understandably stressed the importance of getting maximum points at home against a counter-attacking Qatari side likely to be satisfied with a draw.

Australia have frequently proved to be a tough team to beat in front of their own fans - they toppled then-reigning European champions Greece in 2006 - but their woeful preparation means they won't go into the Qatar game with much confidence.

GettyImagesFormer Uruguay manager Jorge Fossati now in charge of Qatar

Their best strategy might be to follow the example of their under-23 side, the Olyroos, who helped secure a place at the Beijing Games with a 2-nil home victory in November over an Iraqi team containing many stars from their Asian Cup-winning squad.

Both goals came from set pieces, with the Olyroos, who'd bossed the game from the start, taking a direct approach.

Former Socceroo defender, Tony Popovic, who spent a season in the Q-League, predicts that the Qataris will be overwhelmed by the occasion, especially if some of Australia's overseas-based stars end up making the trip.

'They will fear the (European) players, they will fear what the outcome could be and I strongly believe if we get on top early and can get a goal, we could really overpower them,' the former Crystal Palace captain told Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Even so, Australia have showed a habit of conceding costly - and sometimes comical - late goals since the 2006 World Cup. They led Japan in the quarter finals of the Asian Cup last July before gifting the defending champions a late equaliser that would result in an ill-fated penalty shoot out.

The unfortunate timing of the Qatar game - it also falls in between the first and second legs of the A-League semi-finals - means that Verbeek has the most difficult of initiations before an Australian public that still holds high expectations after Germany 2006.

Unfazed by his predicament and plotting strategies and contingency plans as he overseas his home-based players in an eight-day camp, Verbeek is putting on brave front. He's familiar with the Qataris from his time as coach of South Korea and says that the top-seeded Socceroos have nothing to fear against a team nicknamed the Maroon.

But a combination of bad timing, poor preparation and Dick Advocaat's broken promises, means the Maroon have every chance of leaving the Green and Gold with red faces in Melbourne.

•  Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an anchor for Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter on ESPN.