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Five who can shape the Socceroos' Samba Sortie

by Michael Huguenin on Jul 27, 2011

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Change can happen quickly.

Throughout history, the world has frequently shifted significantly in short periods of time.

In Australian football history, think about the change between 21 June 2005 (the date of the Socceroos’ dismal third loss at the Confederations Cup in Germany) and 22 June 2006 (the date of the Socceroos’ dramatic 2-2 draw with Croatia at the World Cup).

I know as a fan it seemed like football was unrecognisable. Australia was playing at a level I had sometimes doubted it would ever reach in my lifetime.

I have a sense that this European season, the next 12 months, could be a similar period for Australia’s national team.

Europe’s league season has kicked off already in some countries and the biggest leagues will all be underway soon. The German Bundesliga and Dutch Eredivisie start in less than two weeks. The English Premier League will get going a week later, followed by the Spanish Primera Liga and Italian Serie A before the end of August.

For the future of the Socceroos, this season could be the starting point of the long-awaited changing of the guard in our national team. For many years the average age of our national team has been worrying. So far this year, both at the Asian Cup and in friendlies, Australia’s manager Holger Osieck has shown his willingness to try new, young players. There’s a feeling that come 2014, if Australia qualifies for Brazil, there’ll be a significantly different Socceroos side involved compared to the team that represented the green and gold in South Africa.

But in order for a true changing of the guard to occur the next generation really needs to step up soon. At club level, few young players are involved on the pitch as much as veterans like Mark Schwarzer or Tim Cahill. Too many younger players seem to spend plenty of time on the bench. The 2011/12 season is the time for this to change. Australia needs its best young players playing and playing well.

I’ve selected five players I believe are in a great position to make a push for Socceroos selection in the World Cup qualifiers that start in September and from there build an international career that will continue for next five to 10 years. I have based my selections on a combination of recent club form, national team experience plus their position and how this reflects any weaknesses in Australia’s current line-up.

Nikita Rukavytsya

Australia’s current striking stocks are woefully thin. Holger Osieck went to Qatar and the Asian Cup with Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill up front. While Australia’s star duo did a decent job and can definitely score goals, to seriously call them strikers is a bit of a stretch.

Nikita Rukavytsya seems to be in the best position of all next generation strikers to step up as a serious player this season.

The 24-year-old is poised to play a full season of Bundesliga football for Hertha Berlin. Rukavytsya was a key player in the club’s Bundesliga II triumph last season. The former Perth Glory speedster played 33 matches, including 30 starts, scoring four goals and setting up 13 more.

The Ukrainian-born forward’s lack of goals last season can fairly easily be explained. Rukavytsya was predominantly used as a winger by his coach Markus Babbel. This will probably continue this season because Hertha hasn’t recruited any players who play in his position, but there’s no reason why the lightning fast Aussie couldn’t line up as a striker for the Socceroos.

A big season in the Bundesliga for the capital club would be a great feather in the cap. Not many other Aussies, let alone Aussie strikers, could boast playing regularly on such a big stage.

Rhys Williams

While Brett Holman was probably the Australian player that had the best 2010, Rhys Williams arguably had the unluckiest. The 23-year-old defender was basically a shoe-in to go to South Africa (not to mention a big chance to play) before injury struck.

That pelvic injury persisted for most of last season but Williams finally got back to play 11 matches for Middlesbrough towards the end of the campaign. In those matches, and during Australia’s friendlies against New Zealand and Serbia, Williams showed he can still match it at a top level.

To paraphrase a well-known book title, Williams is making friends and influencing people. The versatile defender is considered one of Boro’s best players and is also wanted by Bolton manager Owen Coyle, especially if central defender Gary Cahill leaves the Wanderers.

The key for Williams this season is to play. Whether at right back, in the centre of defence or roaming through defensive midfield, the tall Aussie needs to get back to full fitness and continue his form from the end of last season. Williams is a big chance to push for a spot in the centre of the Socceroos’ back four where few young players have been able to make their mark in recent years. Even if he doesn’t go to Bolton in this summer’s transfer window, a big season with Boro could see him in the Premier League next season. National team success won’t hurt either.

Michael Zullo

Another weak spot in Australia’s defence for the last couple of years has been on the left.

First, Scott Chipperfield was converted into a defender. Then a similar project was carried out on David Carney. The Everton junior’s ongoing injury saga surrounding his shoulder and the (somewhat unfair) blame placed on him for Australia’s Asian Cup final defeat in February, has opened the door for a youngster to make the left back position theirs. Michael Zullo has grabbed that opportunity.

Zullo knows all about ongoing injury sagas. The Queenslander had a terrible start to his European adventure. He didn’t make his senior debut for FC Utrecht until the very end of last season because of groin problems. After months of failed rehab, the 22-year-old finally went under the knife before Christmas and ended up making a handful of appearances for his Dutch club.

Now the speedster is primed for a big year. Fresh from two impressive performances against the Kiwis and the Serbs, Zullo has to reward the faith shown in him by the FC Utrecht coaching staff with a big season. Throughout his injury period Zullo was regularly told the Dutch club believed in him. Utrecht is a great spot for the former Roar starlet because there’s relatively little competition for spots.

Neil Kilkenny

Neil Kilkenny’s transfer to Bristol City this European summer surprised many. The pint-sized midfielder was ever present for Leeds United last season as the Whites just missed out on a play-off spot. Despite playing 39 games at a club that seems poised to return to the Premier League sooner rather than later, Kilkenny left.

The 25-year-old has shown glimpses of promise for the Socceroos since Osieck took over from Pim Verbeek. Fellow GGArmy blogger Paddy Higgs wrote in June that Osieck shouldn’t persist with Mile Jedinak and Carl Valeri as a central midfield pairing because they are too similar. I agree and, for mine, Kilkenny is the player that could take one of their spots.

Forged in the rough and tumble of Championship football, Kilkenny can get stuck in as good as the rest of them. But it’s his skill and vision that makes him a different player to Jedinak and Valeri. While he was disappointing in Australia’s June friendlies, I still believe he has what it takes, but probably needs to step up to the Premier League sooner rather than later to prove it.

The Premier League will most likely be make or break for Kilkenny. Slightly less physical than the Championship, Kilkenny may be able to showcase his skills a little more, although his lack of pace will always be a weakness. Those little legs just don’t move fast enough.

That’s why his move to Bristol City is all the more bemusing. The Robins finished 15th last season (compared to 7th for Leeds), so a promotion-winning season seems unlikely. It’s also hard to see how Kilkenny can showcase his talents (for potential Premier League scouts) at a less successful club.

Nathan Burns

This season will be Nathan Burns’ fourth in Europe. After a quiet first season in Greece, Burns has played 53 matches in the last two seasons, first on loan to Kerkyra FC and then last season back at AEK Athens.

The attacking midfielder has built up a solid foundation of experience. Now is the time to become a regular starter.

Burns was flying before the Asian Cup last season. The Aussie played just about every game before he headed to Qatar, only to find himself warming the pine once back in the Greek capital.

During the summer break, two of his main attacking rivals have left the club. In has come Icelandic legend Eidur Gudjohnsen and former Sevilla midfielder Jose Carlos. But having been around for a little while now, Burns can’t play the inexperienced youngster card any more. Australia needs a player of his calibre to really break through.

As a versatile attacker, Burns would be invaluable for Osieck. The 23-year-old could slot in up front, out wide, or even in midfield alongside an enforcer like Jedinak. Burns just needs to show that ability regularly at club level first.

These five players are just a handful of the younger generation plying their trade in Europe. Obviously the likes of Matthew Leckie and Robbie Kruse will be worth keeping an eye on this season to see if they can replicate their A-League form in Germany. But who is it that you think is poised for a big season and will be rewarded with a spot in Osieck’s starting line up? Please, comment below.

Where’s Leckie’s punishment?

Finally, I’d just like to praise a fellow GGArmy blogger on his review of the continuing story surrounding the Young Socceroos squad. I think Paddy Higgs has got it spot on in his blog this week. If you haven’t read it, go check it out.

I made it clear in my blog over a week ago that Han Berger’s comments on Brent McGrath and Steve Lustica’s refusal to play at the World Youth Cup in Columbia could become problematic.

It hasn’t taken long.

Berger’s response to Matthew Leckie’s no-show has been to blame the club. In my opinion this is hypocritical and unfair to McGrath and Lustica.

In the end, as Paddy points out in his blog, it’s stupid to believe that in McGrath and Lustica’s case they didn’t receive similar pressure from their clubs. I believe that Leckie was probably partly happy that Borussia Mönchengladbach made the call. Leckie had already said the World Youth Cup was inconvenient. This way he gets to have a real run at a first team spot and his club can take the rap for his no-show in Colombia. McGrath and Lustica, on the other hand, get painted as villains. In my opinion, that’s completely unfair.