Australia Qualify for the World Cup: A Look at their Strengths and Weaknesses
The Socceroos secured qualification for their third consecutive World Cup with a shaky 1-0 win over already-eliminated Iraq in Sydney on Tuesday night.
Australia's qualification campaign was not always pretty, but in the end it was effective, as they clinched the second spot in Group B with seven minutes to go in their final fixture.
When Jesus Christ lookalike Josh Kennedy rose high above the Iraqi defense and headed home a beautifully-weighted Mark Bresciano cross to send the 80,523-strong crowd at Stadium Australia into raptures, there was a strong feeling of relief for football fans around the country to go along with the elation.
With an overall record going back to the start of the first group phase of 14 games played, eight wins, four draws and two losses, there were several anxious moments throughout the campaign for Socceroos supporters, but the payoff did eventually come.
The nadir for Australia came in March when they went down 2-0 to Oman at home before clawing their way back to draw 2-2. So dire was the performance that many pundits began to doubt the side's ability to qualify.
That result left Holger Osiek's side needing six points from their final three games, against Japan away, and Jordan and Iraq at home.
A gritty 1-1 draw in Saitama raised hopes that, with their backs to the wall, the Socceroos would once again dig just deep enough to earn themselves a place at the big show. And so it proved, as they punched their way past Jordan in Melbourne with an impressive 4-0 win to set up the Sydney showdown with Iraq.
Though the Australian players made the right noises about not taking their opponents lightly in the lead up to the game, there was a sense that the Iraqis, with nothing to play for, would only prove to be a minor speed bump on the road to Rio (or whichever less-iconic city Australia happens to be based in during the tournament). Yet the Middle Eastern side put up a terrific fight to keep the 'Roos fate up in the air until the very end.
Now that Lucas Neill and his men have booked their place in Brazil, here is a look at how they might shape up when they get there.
Manager Holger Osieck
A somewhat surprising choice when he was appointed to the role in August, 2010, Osieck had previously been in charge of an eclectic mix of teams, from the Urawa Red Diamonds in Japan to the Canadian national team to Fenerbahce in Turkey.
In Australia, the jury is still out on whether or not the German is the right man to lead the Socceroos, but the fact that he has thus far done what was expected of him in terms of reaching the finals has no doubt earned him grudging respect.
One thing is certain: Osieck's primary concern is not his own popularity, something that was clearly demonstrated in the closing stages of the match against Iraq when he hooked national hero Tim Cahill and replaced him with Kennedy.
That decision ultimately proved a masterstroke, and showed that Osieck's no-nonsense approach may be just what the Socceroos need.
After much experimentation, Osieck finally settled on a favored starting lineup for Australia's last three qualifying matches.
The formation could be called a flexible 4-2-3-1, with Mark Schwartzer in goal, Luke Wilkshire at right back, Lucas Neill and Sasa Ognenovski in the centre of defense and Matt McKay at left back. Mark Milligan was the deepest midfielder, with Mark Bresciano given license to roam just in front of him, and Tommy Oar and Robbie Kruse providing speed down the left and right flanks respectively. Brett Holman and Tim Cahill were the most advanced players in the middle, with the New York Red Bulls player usually acting as the target man.
It may be cliche, but the Socceroos continue to reap the benefits of an incredibly strong team spirit, work ethic and never-say-die attitude. This gritty determination has seen them punch above their weight on countless occasions over the past decade or so, and became apparent once more in the closing stages of their qualification campaign.
If they are to make their mark in Brazil, young wingers Tommy Oar and Robbie Kruse will have to continue to develop as dangerous attacking weapons, and veterans like Mark Bresciano and Tim Cahill will again be called on to provide the match-winning spark.
The average age of the lineup that took on Iraq was 30.6, and this figure points to the difficulties Australia has had in replacing their "golden generation" of stars who first led them to the World Cup in 2006.
Continued dependence on those veterans means this Socceroos side is somewhat lacking in dynamism and, most importantly, pace.
Aging legs in the backline is of particular concern, especially considering Australia's defense was horribly exposed by Germany at the last World Cup, and the likes of Neill and Wilkshire will be four years older this time around.
How far will Australia go at the World Cup in Brazil?
Australia will need to find the right balance between youth and experience before the World Cup kicks off in a year's time, and that will mean giving more responsibility to Oar and Kruse, further integrating other youngsters like Celtic playmaker Tom Rogic into the side and unearthing a couple of defenders to act as backups, and eventual replacements, for the stalwarts at the back.
Much will depend on the makeup of Australia's group in Brazil, but if they can match their achievements of 2006 by advancing to the Round of 16, it will likely be considered a successful tournament for the Socceroos.
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