If you’re planning on heading to Brazil in 2014, I reckon it’s safe to wander down to Flight Centre and book your ticket to Rio. Australia have got one Havaiana in the door of the World Cup, courtesy of their gritty 2-1 win against Iraq overnight.
A nil-all snooze-fest in Muscat, followed by dropped points at home to Japan and a poor showing in Jordan, made for some sweaty palms but the three points yesterday have set the Good Ship Socceroo back on course, with Captain Osieck at the helm.
Sure, the Green-and-Gold only sit second in Group B, with 5 points from four games, above Oman on goal difference, Jordan (4) and Iraq (2), and below Japan, who are streeting the field with 10 points. But Australia is surely capable of keeping their Arab challengers at bay, with home games against their three Middle East rivals likely to net plenty of points. Three wins would lock up qualification without needing to rely on bringing anything home from the trip to Japan next June.
So we’ll make it to South America in two years time, that’s halfway sewn up. You’ll see plenty of inflatable kangaroos and terry towelling hats on Copacabana Beach in 2014. But will those Aussies make the return journey across the Pacific with a grin on their face? Or will Qantas have to ferry home thousands of victims of another Verbeek-style massacre?
The early signs aren’t good. Australia has lacked fluency so far this campaign; even in the easier first stage of qualifying, an embarrassing loss in Oman was the lowlight of a string of stilted performances. Friendly losses to Denmark and Scotland in the last couple of months have also been discouraging, considering both these outfits are unlikely to even qualify for Brazil.
On paper, Australia’s road to Rio is ideal. Along with a couple of quality European friendlies, the six AFC Third Round fixtures followed by the eight sterner Fourth Round games provides a long, but not-too-difficult, qualifying route. There are lots of games, but with all due respect to our Asian opponents, there is little serious risk of not qualifying. The perfect conditions for experimenting, right?
Holger evidently doesn’t think so, if you examine his selection policy. Mark Schwarzer has already blown out the candles on his 40th birthday cake, while Tim Cahill and Lucas Neill will be 34 and 36 by the time Brazil 2014 rolls around. And yet, they still get a start. The same with Carl Valeri and Mile Jedinak, both born in August ’84, who don’t even have the laurels of Schwarzer et al. to rest on.
It’s not through a lack of feasible replacements. Michael Zullo, Tommy Oar and Adam Sarota – the three youthful Queenslanders who feature regularly for Dutch club Utrecht – have a mere 17 caps between them. 20-year-old Eli Babalj has made the move to Red Star Belgrade and deserves a look-in, as does German-based Nikita Rukavytsya. Mitch Langerak or Adam Federici would be able replacements between the sticks. Aston Villa’s Chris Herd, Holland-based Jason Davidson, hardened Football League midfielder Neil Kilkenny, Hearts’ Ryan McGowan and Austria Vienna’s James Holland all deserve more consideration than they have been given.
Asia is tailor-made for this kind of experimenting with the squad. Heaps of games, all of them competitive, but plenty of room to test new players. If the old boys were doing the job in style, it would be hard to drop them. But the bones are starting the creak, and the results are starting to wane. And, surely, it must be getting increasingly difficult for Osieck to keep ignoring the tree full of fruit ripe for the picking.