With Pim Verbeek’s Golden Green and Gold’s creating their own history by qualifying for consecutive World Cups in typically clinical fashion on the weekend, it is time to run the rule over the individual performances throughout the campaign.
But before I get stuck into that, I want to dispel a myth that has been circulating, and I heard it again last night at the Sydney FC game in Penrith, about how “easy” the qualification route through Asia has been.
Granted, the competition hasn’t been consistently of the highest level. But to claim it’s been easy does a massive disservice, in my mind, to the meticulous planning at both an FFA and coaching staff level, and the supreme commitment of this wonderful batch of Socceroos.
In all likelihood, the success during this campaign will only truly be appreciated the next time a local or international manager fails to get us to a World Cup, or perhaps even to the next Asian Cup, the latter of which still appears a distinct possibility.
Remember, for example, Australia’s disastrous Asian Cup two years ago, or the fact the first phase here put paid to both China and Iraq, decent sides. There were other times, like in Kunming and Dubai, where our passage through looked anything but assured and it was only Australia’s superior record against Qatar that made it comfortable in the end.
Thankfully, the second phase hasn’t had the same drama, but it hasn’t always been a walk in the park, which reinforces what a wonderful job Frank Lowy did in learning from the Asian Cup debacle and hiring someone who could navigate Asia, despite the animosity towards him at the start.
With that context in mind, it’s time to pay homage to the players who have fulfilled the plans and taken us through our first Asian qualification campaign.
Mark Schwarzer, 9; the big man gets better with age and has streaked miles ahead of his nearest rival. The player of the qualifying campaign.
The others; hard to truly gauge the successor, given the lack of game time, but Michael Petkovic appears to be well thought of, and has been the number two for all but the opening two games.
Luke Wilkshire, 8; when Verbeek was struggling for a bit of penetration on the right wing, he decided to move Brett Emerton forward and slot Wilkshire in at right back. He was only able to do it thanks to Wilkshire’s adaptability, and he combined beautifully with Emerton and has shown deft crossing ability. Like Schwarzer, gets better and better.
Lucas Neill, 7.5; unavailable in a couple of the earlier games as his partner gave birth, Neill resumed with some solid work in the middle, and has played a key role in ensuring so many clean sheets in the second phase. Was particularly brilliant in Yokohama.
Craig Moore, 7; absent in the early going, Australia’s defence instantly looked better the moment he teamed up with Neill, most notably in the smash and grab a point raid on Japan. Needs to stay fit, but still in the mix at this stage.
Chris Coyne, 7.5; only came into the reckoning in the second phase, but was superb in Tashkent, and equally as effective in both Manama and Doha, despite Quintana drifting away from him for Qatar’s best chance on Sunday. Has been showing a great temperament, which rightly has him ahead of both Jade North and Michael Beauchamp at this stage.
Jade North, 7; superb in a three man backline in Kunming, he was among the stand-outs in the first phase, despite looking uneasy in the loss to China in Sydney. Great to see him finally making it at this level, he needs a consistent season at club level to stay in contention for South Africa.
Michael Beauchamp, 6.5; getting better by the game, he looked good against the Uzbeks in Sydney, but needs to now take every opportunity, for he has been bumped down the order.
Scott Chipperfield, 7; scored a crucial goal in Tashkent, but his most effective work since coming into the side has been in a defensive capacity. Adds so much composure, he will be almost impossible to replace should he legs not make it to South Africa.
David Carney, 6; a regular under Graham Arnold, he has been bumped down the pecking order by Chipperfield’s consistency in the second phase. Like North and Beauchamp, featured in many of the first phase games, where the defence wasn’t as solid. Needs to get games at club level as the only thing keeping him in the mix at the moment is the lack of left back alternatives.
The others; Matthew Spiranovic did well against China in Sydney but still needs game time. Shane Steffanutto waits in the wings on the left.
Carl Valeri, 8; has been one of the emerging stars of this campaign, moving right up the pecking order in the engine room, to the point he can safely be relied upon to do a job in the absence of Vince Grella, or alongside he or Jason Culina. Especially away from home, where Verbeek often set out a defensive stall, Valeri helped suffocate teams, most notably in Yokohama, while in Tashkent he combined superbly with Jacob Burns in the absence of Grella and Culina.
Vince Grella, 7; isn’t quite the force or immovable object he once was, but appears to now be handling the heat of Asia better than he did at the Asian Cup.
Jason Culina, 8; adaptable, he demands perfection in the midfield and has become a real leader in this side after flourishing under Hiddink. Wherever he plays he does a job, and the passing out of midfield always appears crisper when he is pulling the strings.
Jacob Burns, 6; not so effective against China in Sydney, he was otherwise excellent alongside Valeri in the vital win in Tashkent.
Mile Jedinak, 6; has done well to force himself into Verbeek’s mind, even if only as a squad regular. A good season at Gencler and he comes right into the mix, possibly at the expense of Burns.
Brett Emerton, 8; before his knee injury and especially after being moved up the pitch, Emerton was dynamic, proving far too physical and powerful for his Asian opponents. A Socceroos legend since Germany, fingers crossed for a speedy recovery.
Brett Holman, 6.5; like Valeri wasn’t really in the mix before this campaign, but has hitherto grabbed some of his chances, at least in the eyes of the coaching fraternity. Opinion in less flattering among many fans, but there is little doubt Holman does an effective defensive job, helping the Socceroos defend from the front. Appears best suited when Verbeek is trying to suffocate and counter-punch, where he can use his pace to hassle and counter.
Tim Cahill, 8; wasn’t suited to the sole striker role in Manama, but has been exemplary in his attacking midfield role, especially when Josh Kennedy has been forward. No-one reads the fall of the second ball or times their run into the box better.
Mark Bresciano, 7; had an outstanding game in Sydney against Uzbekistan but has otherwise been fairly quiet in an attacking sense. Defensively his work has been top-notch, and he can still pop up with the crucial goals.
Harry Kewell, 8; has been excellent throughout, popping up with crucial goals like his one in Brisbane against Iraq. Supreme on the weekend.
The others; Richard Garcia is till feeling his way in, Nick Carle can’t get a look in and nor, it seems, can Mile Sterjovski.
Josh Kennedy, 7.5; has been super in the air, scoring and setting up. Asian opponents haven’t been able to touch him inside the box, but you would expect European opponents to deal better with at the World Cup.
Scott McDonald, 6.5; had his best game in Green and Gold in Sydney against the Uzbeks, but is still waiting for his first. If he keeps demonstrating the workrate he showed against the Uzbeks, goals will come, hopefully starting tonight.
The others; Bruce Djite has been on the bench a bit, but didn’t take his chance against China. Needs to keep producing the goals in Turkey. Mark Viduka made a brief appearance in camp earlier this year but has been unsighted on the pitch.