After an impressive showing in 2006, qualifying from a group including Brazil, Croatia and Japan before being narrowly defeated in the last 16 by Italy, Pim Verbeek’s Australia side will be looking to build on the performance of Guus Hiddink’s team of four years ago. With an experienced squad built around a strong spine including the likes of Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell, the Socceroos clearly have the ability and know-how to overcome some of the World Cup’s more fancied sides.
Having qualified for the tournament in the Asian section for the first time since joining the AFC in 2006, Australia showed their class by winning six and drawing two of their eight games, conceding just one goal – scored by Japan’s Tulio Tanaka – throughout the entire process. Despite their excellent qualification record, the countries the Socceroos came up against, with the notable exception of Japan, were not of anything like the quality of the teams Verbeek’s side will face in South Africa. In fact, of the other teams in Australia and Japan’s qualifying group – Bahrain, Qatar and Uzbekistan – none are ranked in the World’s top 50 and questions could be asked of the suitability of the Aussie’s preparations for this summer’s tournament.
However, no matter who the opposition, Verbeek will back his group of players to succeed in what is a difficult group containing three other strong sides in the shape of Germany, Serbia and Ghana. Favouring a 4-2-3-1 throughout much of the qualifying campaign, the controversial Dutch Coach gives his back four an insurance policy by deploying two holding midfield players – usually the uncompromising pairing of Jason Culina and Carl Valeri – who do their best to break up opposition attacks further up the field. Ahead of them lies the creative fulcrum of the team, Mark Bresciano, Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell – arguably the squad’s three most talented players – forming an advanced midfield trio with Cahill playing centrally and Bresciano and Kewell on the flanks. Joshua Kennedy has emerged as the first-choice striker, having scored five goals in qualifying to leapfrog Archie Thompson and Scott McDonald in the queue for starting places in attack.
Though the Socceroos certainly have a talented pool of players from which to draw, Verbeek has criticised his players as well as the standard of the A-League recently, questioning the decisions of some players with regard to their transfers and publicly saying that he has a lot of work to do to get his squad anywhere near the required level for the World Cup. The Dutchman’s views may well have an element of truth to them, but surely by saying what he has he is only serving to disrupt his own squad ahead of the summer. If the Australians can overcome these minor issues and iron out the technical problems Verbeek thinks they have in the forthcoming friendlies against Denmark and the USA, then the team can hope to at least match their efforts of four years ago. If not, however, they could be in for a difficult time in South Africa in what will be an unforgiving group.
Probable starting XI: Schwarzer (Fulham); Wilkshire (Dynamo Moscow), Neill (Galatasaray), Coyne (Liaoning Whowin), Carney (FC Twente); Valeri (Sassuolo), Culina (Gold Coast United); Bresciano (Palermo), Cahill (Everton), Kewell (Galatasaray); Kennedy (Nagoya Grampus)
The Road to South Africa: 1st in AFC Group A
World Ranking: 20th