Job half done, Socceroos must adjust

by Sebastian Hassett on Nov 16, 2011

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It took a few days longer than expected, but the Socceroos are through to the final stage of World Cup qualifying. Getting this far was expected, as it should always be for a nation of our calibre. The next part poses the real challenge.

Of course, Australia is a top 20 nation, an Asian Cup finalist, and we should qualify for the World Cup. Expectations have evolved so rapidly in recent times that anything less than a place in Brazil will be seen as a catastrophic failure.

This first stage of qualification has been a real mixed bag. We were terrible against Thailand in Brisbane but superb against Saudi Arabia away. The win over Oman in Sydney was cruisy; shamefully, the players seemed to think it would be that easy in Muscat and lost.

Last night in Bangkok ranked about half-way on the performance spectrum. Perhaps it's a touch generous, but they got the job done with a game to spare. And a win in South-east Asia, even one as unconvincing as this, should never be taken for granted.

We learned this the hard way in the 2007 Asian Cup. The heat and humidity is something we are still working out, especially as so many of our players are conditioned to the European environment.

At least the team kept their shape last night, which they scarcely did four years ago as the players' collective concentration seemed to evaporate at the 20 minute mark of almost each match.

The obvious concern on this occasion was how slow Australia started. The Socceroos produced just one decent chance in the first half, taking almost 30 minutes to genuinely test Sinthaweechai
Hathairattanakool. Josh Kennedy's angled header had the Thai keeper needing to move swiftly to his right after a neat cross from Brett Holman, but that was about it.

A few minutes later, Thailand had their big chance. Datsakorn Thonglao's incisive pass to Suree Sukha on 30 minutes was a gem, and had Sukha shown a fraction more composure, he would have made it 1-0 instead of blasting over the bar.

By now, the hosts were exposing what is now the biggest flaw in Australia's game. Just as Matt McKay struggled against Oman at left-back, Michael Zullo was faring little better. The Thais picked at him liked a scab. Zullo is still learning the position - as is McKay, to an extent - but these two matches have highlighted that the Socceroos are no closer to a solution. Forget the spin you'll hear from Camp Australia: this is a problem.

Holger Osieck's side were somewhat better in the second half, more so for their composure and intelligence. They were patient and waited for their time to strike as they sensed the Thais were losing their cool. Holman's winner was the sign of a player who knows how and when to lift, and for it was his hard running that gave Brett Emerton a target for his cross. It would ultimately prove the difference.

One thing that struck me yet again was the midfield pairing of Mile Jedinak and Carl Valeri; it's just too defensive and sets a negative tone for the whole team. Osieck may argue that he wanted to minimise the risks, and both did plenty of grunt work, but it's probably not a creative enough pairing to break down the teams we'll face if we make it to Brazil. Central midfielders should create first and negate second.
It's Jedinak or Valeri for mine, for we only need one holding midfielder. I'd actually like to see Erik Paartalu get a chance as well - surely Saudi Arabia at home in February is the perfect opportunity for that - and all three should be competing for the same spot in coming years.

In attack, one feels Josh Kennedy now needs more support. If there's no Harry Kewell or Tim Cahill, why not play Alex Brosque or Robbie Kruse? They have the pace and energy to cause trouble. Leaving Kennedy alone up front sometimes makes Australia too predictable.

Finally, a word on all the ridiculous second-half 'gamesmanship' that Thailand engaged in. Thank goodness we don't deploy in that rubbish. It's a disgrace, an ongoing problem we encounter in Asian football, and Osieck was right to order his team to play on.

Let us never stoop to such degrading and petty acts.