And so it begins.
The road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Finals in Brazil will be long and winding for the Socceroos, one which will see the sun finally setting on the so called ‘Golden Generation’ of Australian football.
It will be a journey that will reveal whether we are ready for the end of an era or, like the national cricket team, been so transfixed by the now that we failed to plan adequately for the future.
The Socceroos campaign gets under way on September 2nd against Thailand in Brisbane. Before that, Holger Osieck will get the chance to tinker with his squad and his qualification campaign plans when the team gathers in Cardiff for a friendly against Wales next Wednesday (Thursday morning our time).
If the Socceroos are to succeed in qualifying for an unprecedented third consecutive FIFA World Cup Finals, Osieck and his staff will have to get the best out of his veterans and find a few hidden gems ready to shine from generation next.
Here’s a list of three challenges Osieck will need to meet if he is to succeed.
1. A CASE FOR THE DEFENCE
Is it the Australian disease?
The Matildas (as brilliant as they were at times) were about as sturdy at the back as a two-man tent in a cyclone. The Young Socceroos at the Under 20 World Cup in Colombia seemed to be schooled in country hospitality, leaving the back door open at all times.
Since the Durban disaster, the Socceroos haven’t been anywhere near as generous, but the long term defensive structure is a worry.
While Lucas Neill and Sasa Ognenovski would be the preferred central defensive pairing for the start of the campaign, they’re unlikey to be there together in 2014.
Which means the continued and accelerated development of Matthew Spiranovic and Rhys Williams becomes vital.
The left back role has been David Carney’s almost by default in recent years. Michael Zullo’s form since his move to FC Utrecht in the Netherlands may come just in time to solve this recurring headache.
And with Vincenzo Grella’s international career having drawn to a close, the Socceroos desperately need a mid ield enforcer to shield the back four. Mile Jedinak can make this role his own if he continues to improve.
2. FINDERS KEEPERS
It’s difficult to contemplate, but Mark Schwarzer can’t go on forever. The evergreen stopper has vowed to push on for as long as he can, and as a player who has always prepared himself impeccably he may find himself on the plane to Rio in 2014 if the Socceroos were to qualify.
It’s time though to prepare for life after Schwarzer. Adam Federici is the heir apparent, and the man from Reading FC impressed enough in recent friendlies here in Australia to suggest he’s up to the task.
Federici is a keeper from the old school, a burly physical presence with surprising agility. He provides something of a contrast with his biggest rival for the number one shirt, Borussia Dortmund stopper Mitchell Langerak.
The kid from Emerald in Queensland lacks nothing, especially not the confidence to perform in big games.
Competition for the number one shirt is sure to be intense over the next few years. Let’s hope for the Socceroos sake it brings out the best in both keepers.
3. LUCKY STRIKE
Australia’s attacking stocks hit a low point when Pim Verbeek started Richard Garcia as the lone man up front against Germany in South Africa.
It spoke of a crippling lack of confidence in Australia’s ability to craft opportunities and take them.
Holger Osieck’s first priority since taking on the job seems to have been to reverse this mindset.
He’s started by giving his midfielders the licence to express themselves. The emergence of Brett Holman as the creative lynchpin in midfield started in South Africa and blossomed during the Asian Cup campaign. Osieck’s faith in A-League graduate Matt McKay was richly rewarded and bodes well for the future.
And though his team was pummelled in Colombia, Tommy Oar showed enough to suggest he will have something to offer throughout the campaign.
Tim Cahill remains the Socceroos big weapon, but relying on his ability to find the net in important games will not be enough. Osieck refuses to give up on Scott McDonald, inviting the Middlesbrough striker to Cardiff to try again.
You get the sense that if McDonald can break his duck for the national team, the flood gates might open. The dream pairing has always been an in-form Scotty Mac working in tandem with Josh Kennedy, but it’s yet to produce results. It’s now or never in that regard.
And who knows, football is full of stories of young, precocious talents who come like a shot in the dark to claim their place among the best.
Young Socceroos striker Kerem Bulut has all the ingredients to do just that. He’s big, aggressive, ambitious, volatile and rudely talented.
The kid could be anything. And he might just be the gift from the Football Gods the Socceroos need if they are to succeed.