Our Socceroos are watchable again, and appear to be on the rise, but a slip-up in Thursday night’s quarter final against a Chinese side that has been making quite the splash at this tournament would mean this campaign is rightly viewed as a failure, despite the early promise.
Make no mistake, the pressure is on Ange Postecoglou and his team to deliver a result in Brisbane, and if they can reproduce what they have for large parts of the opening three games then they should be too strong for Alain Perrin’s men.
But the Socceroos can’t afford to carry too many poor performers, as they did against South Korea.
While there was much noise made about the fact the Roos dominated possession and created the majority of the chances, tactically Uli Stielike’s men did what they wanted to, and had few weakness on the pitch.
The Socceroos, meanwhile, started slowly, succumbing to Korea’s early press, then appeared to play in a stressed manner in search of an equaliser that would have seen them top the group.
Tim Cahill’s running debate with the referee after he came on, and his manager’s mood after the game, where he brought up the state of the Brisbane pitch, summed up the pressure the team appeared under.
Thrown off course, they must show that they have regained their composure.
As much as we are enjoying seeing a more proactive Socceroos under Postecoglou, Thursday night is very much about the mental preparation and the team’s ability to handle the expectation that they should at least make the semi final.
The senior heads like Cahill, Mile Jedinak and either Matt McKay, Mark Milligan or Mark Bresciano must stand up, while the others with the experience of the World Cup behind them like Mat Ryan, Alex Wilkinson, Mathew Leckie, Ivan Franjic and Jason Davidson can’t be too far behind.
Perhaps the biggest test is for the back five.
While there have been signs of improvement from the uncertain work in Brazil, there have still been early lapses in concentration at set pieces in all three games that they might not have recovered from against better opponents.
Perhaps the biggest concern against Korea was in the fullback areas, where the likes of Lee Kuen-ho and Kim Jin-su on the left and Han Kyo-won and Kim Chang-soo on the right dominated Franjic and Aziz Behich respectively.
While Perrin has chopped and changed his wide men in the the group phase, one of the consistent themes between Yu Hai, Wu Xi, Sun Ke, Hao Junmin and Wu Lei has been the sheer work rate, speed and penetrating forward runs between defenders.
The Roos fullbacks have to be very alert.
Postecoglou has some decisions to make and my sense is Davidson, who played well against Oman in Game 2, and provides good defensive cover, might get the gig on the left.
The leg injury that ruled the chronically unlucky Chris Herd out of the tournament means that Franjic will retain his right back spot, but he has to do a better job.
If Perrin has his tactical cap on he might switch Sun Ke over to left and target the loose defensive positions Franjic can find himself in.
Conversely, the Socceroos, with Leckie and Robbie Kruse back in the fold in the high wide positions, will aim to limit the potential of the fullback being exposed by pressing China’s defence high.
Unlike the group phase, starting well will be important, and one of the key objectives of pressing high will be to limit the supply to and from screening midfielders Cui Huikang and Zheng Zhi, from where much of China’s crisp forward distribution comes.
The Roos will also need to be mindful of the speed of China in transition, and Trent Sainsbury’s job in pushing high and stopping the central striker, likely to be Gao Lin, will be critical.
All the while the sweeping of Wilkinson, in for the suspended Matt Spiranovic, and Ryan, will be important. If the Socceroos are to control this, the work of the midfield both from a pressing and ball circulation perspective will be critical.
This is where Postecoglou has the toughest decision to make. Jedinak appears to be ready to come back in, and it would sensible if that’s via a straight swap with Milligan.
While the latter had a great game against Oman, there is no room for both Jedinak and Milligan in Posteocglou’s new midfield which features just one holder. We’ve seen over the last two games that Milligan is best when he operates as a sole six, where he has the space to receive and distribute, and can control opponents.
We’ve seen in previous friendlies however that Milligan’s not suited to one of the twin eight roles ahead of the six, which requires a more dynamic and mobile type of midfielder. It would be a massive surprise if in-form Mass Luongo isn’t one of the two number eights.
The other spot is more interesting. James Troisi played there against Kuwait while McKay has started in the two games since Jedinak was injured. There has been a push for Bresciano but I must admit I’m not convinced about his legs for the sustained Roos pressing game.
In attack Kruse is key. His ability to drive beyond the defence with and without the ball, wide and between defenders, adds so much to the Socceroos attack. He is a big reason for the evolution of the Roos attack since Brazil, and looms as a key creative factor to break down a stubborn Chinese rearguard.
Meanwhile, Leckie has perhaps been less effective here than Brazil because the Socceroos are controlling games rather than relying on the transition he executed so ruthlessly last June.
I’m expecting the Socceroos to be switched on and have too much quality, but if their composure and concentration isn’t spot on then Perrin’s men have enough threat to make it an uncomfortable night.
The other quarter finals
South Korea versus Uzbekistan
If Korea are anywhere near the level they displayed against the Socceroos on Matchday 3 they will be too strong.
They will be expected to make a bit more of the running here and if they can repeat the early press they showed against the Roos, Uzbekistan will find it tough.
The Uzbeks beat Saudi Arabia in the do-or-die match on Sunday but weren’t overly impressive, relying on the counter. Korea will be switched on to this.
Iran versus Iraq
I’ve been really impressed by Iran and struggle to see Iraq getting too close in Canberra.
Carlos Queiroz’s side is arguably the best defensively with Morteza Pouraliganji and Seyed Hosseini very strong, but in Askhan Dejagah, Sardar Azmoun, Reza Ghoochannejhad and Masoud Shojaei they have potency in attack.
They mightn’t always control possession, but they get in behind teams and create good chances, and the two old stagers in Andranik Teymourian and Javad Nekounam are steady foils, having had very good tournaments.
Japan versus United Arab Emirates
As good as Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout, Ahmed Khalil and Mohamed Abdulrahman have been, Japan should be too strong.
Makato Hasebe, such a dominate figure against Jordan on Tuesday, has a key role in getting close to Omar Abdulrahman, and if he does the UAE’s supply will be limited.
Provided it’s not too hot in Sydney tomorrow, Japan’s pressing should be too much for the Emirati defence, and while they haven’t really been tested, they’ve been creating plenty in attack, with the foundation being the defending from the front.