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Aurelio Vidmar takes the Olyroos to Qatar for the AFC Under-23 Championships this week with his squad cruelled by the unavailability of no less than seven players.
Most observers would have expected these absentees to be among the very first names on the team sheet, too.
When contemplating a starting Olyroos outfield featuring Chris Ikonomidis (Lazio), Brad Smith (Liverpool), Kenneth Dougall (Sparta Rotterdam), Milos Degenek (1860 Munich), Jackson Irvine (Ross County), Ryan Williams (Barnsley), and Awer Mabil (Midtjylland), joined by Terry Antonis (PAOK), Jason Geria (Melbourne Victory) and Jamie Maclaren (Brisbane Roar), you could quite easily be forgiven for feeling bullish about the team’s chances of making the semi-finals.
They will be right in the mix for silverware as well as earning qualification for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
However, those first seven named are all unavailable due to the tourney not being fixtured in a designated FIFA window and all were refused release by their employers.
The final three players are now absolutely key to this team’s chances in Doha.
Antonis, Geria and Maclaren will be expected to help lead a team possibly featuring Fiorentina’s Josh Brillante, Sydney FC pair Andrew Hoole and Alex Gersbach, Fulham’s Cameron Burgess, Melbourne City’s Stefan Mauk, Melbourne Victory’s Thomas Deng and Brisbane forward Brandon Borrello.
John Hall (Adelaide United), Jack Duncan (Randers) and Aaron Lennox (Kilmarnock) will battle it out for the number one goalkeeper slot.
In Scott Galloway, Connor Pain, Giancarlo Gallifuoco (Melbourne Victory), James Donachie (Brisbane Roar), Jaushua Sotirio (Western Sydney), Adam Taggart (Fulham), Steven Ugarkovic (Newcastle Jets), Brandon O’Neill (Sydney FC) and Ryan Edwards (Partick Thistle), Vidmar has plenty of depth in a squad that, on paper, looks capable of making the last four.
Helping his cause, Vidmar could reasonably expect some level of instant cohesion in his team given that so many of his players play together week in, week out in the A-League. Not only teammates, but often in direct partnership on their part of the pitch.
There are three neat groupings of what might be more than half the team at times. From the outside peering in, this can only be considered favourable environs in which to cultivate success.
Central Coast Mariners custodian Paul Izzo was a late withdrawal due to injury, leaving the keeper spot probably the biggest selection headache for the coach.
Randers’ Jack Duncan appears to be number one but Adelaide’s John Hall is the only keeper to have played any first team football this season – seven games – though curiously he was left out of the initial squad, only coming in to replace Izzo.
There are definitely question marks over the keeper’s position in terms of senior experience, when compared to most of the outfield players.
Deng is the bolter. It’s been a rapid rise to recognition from a player with just a handful of recent first-team games for Melbourne Victory. The 18-year-old rookie has handled with aplomb being thrown into the lion’s den of big occasions and pressure situations playing for the current A-League champions; his classy, unfussed displays there have seen him fast-tracked into the national setup and quite conceivably Vidmar’s first XI.
The smoky is Steven Ugarkovic, the new Newcastle Jets signing having been until recently a regular in central defence for Osijek in the Croation top-tier. He might be preferred ahead of Burgess. Brisbane’s James Donachie is a highly rated central defender though hasn’t played any senior football this season.
Brillante and Antonis should provide bite and good circulation through the middle, though Edwards and O’Neill are possible here. Antonis might have to take on a more advanced, creative role for his side at times, too.
The goalscoring load will need to be shared between Maclaren – who should get first crack at number nine – Taggart, Borrello, Mauk, Hoole and Pain.
Fullbacks Geria and Gersbach pick themselves.
Vidmar has this week talked of the players learning and executing the ‘Australian Way’: a high tempo, fluid, hustling, organised brand of play preached and practiced by Soccerroos manager Ange Postecoglou with success at senior international level.
The Olyroos will seek to dominate their opposition at all times – a tactic not without risk – and play positive football with focus, but without fear.
It goes without saying that the success with which Vidmar can communicate this is crucial.
Can these Olyroos join their senior counterparts as continental champions?
Group opponents: UAE, Jordan, Vietnam
Prediction: Semi-finalist, Olympic qualification
Chris Aloi can be found on Twitter at @DITBPod and runs an A-League podcast called Destruction in the Box.