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Getting a good start: Easier said than done

by Ben Somerford on May 24, 2012

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Prior to any Socceroos qualifying campaign you always hear the message, “We need to get off to a good start”. This final round World Cup qualifying group will be no different but after watching Japan on Wednesday night, this scribe is wondering how easy that'll be.

Australia has a tough start to final round qualifying with clearly our hardest four fixtures being our first four fixtures.

To start off with Australia has the bye on the opening round of fixtures, meaning we'll be a game in arrears of everyone else, before a tough away trip to Oman (who beat us in Muscat 1-0 in the third round) and then a home clash with 2011 Asian Cup winners Japan in Brisbane.

Meanwhile, the Samurai Blue, who I watched sweep aside Azerbaijan 2-0 in Shizuoka on Wednesday evening, has a nice set of fixtures to begin with, as they host Oman and then Jordan in Saitama, meaning they could easily be on six points heading into the June 12 clash with Australia.

When people talk about the importance of getting off to a good start in these competitions the reason is to take the pressure off. If you don't, suddenly you begin looking at the points table too much and worrying about other results. And when you consider Japan's early draw, if they head into the Suncorp Stadium game with two wins from two matches, the pressure will certainly be off them. That is a mental advantage, no doubt.

Just look at Australia's first-up 4-0 loss to Germany at the 2010 World Cup for evidence. Sure, that was a shorter group stage, but all the talk in those final two games was about what the Socceroos had to do to progress with all sorts of calculations and algorithms floating in the press. Ultimately, Australia never recovered.

This final round qualifying phase, the Socceroos will have eight games to finish in the top two of a group of five. Third will earn a playoff spot. Simple enough considering our opposition, but things are never so basic in international football.

As Tim Cahill said in a recent interview with SBS's Craig Foster, the Socceroos are a good side but we aren't anything overly special, so we do need to be cautious in our expectations. Of course, we should qualify for Brazil 2014, but lets not be complacent.

Three of Australia's first four final round qualifiers are in West Asia and our opening home game is against regional powerhouse Japan. Clearly our four hardest games come first.

Getting off to a good start will set us up, but that won't be easy. If we don't start well, the pressure will be on in those last few home games in qualifying. Maybe it's the pessimist in me, but I can already picture a frustrated Sydney crowd bringing out the old Brett Holman jibes and getting on the Socceroos' backs with scores locked at 0-0 after 60 minutes against Jordan in June next year. But that's the nature of pressure.

Having watched Japan easily account for Azerbaijan on Wednesday, I am convinced Australia won't be finishing top of this group.

The Samurai Blue may not have buried the Eastern Europeans at the Ecopa Stadium but they were always in control. Players like Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki and Wednesday debutant Ryo Miyaichi have huge attacking talent, while under Alberto Zaccheroni the Samurai Blue are well organised at the back.

For the Socceroos, getting that win in Brisbane won't be easy, but it'll be hugely important particularly given our early draw. Get off to a good start and we're on our way to Brazil. If not, the pressure-meter on Holger and the boys will go up a couple of notches.