A month has passed since Australia’s gut-wrenching extra-time loss to Japan in the Asian Cup final. A month which has given the country’s football bosses, coaching staff, players and fans a chance to reflect on what went wrong and what might have been.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to pinpoint the negatives of the campaign. The tournament represented the last chance – surely – for the remainder of the Socceroos’ “Golden Generation” (Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neil, Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell) to lift a major trophy. Also, while we were competent against Korea and Bahrain, effective against India and Iraq, exquisite against Uzbekistan and luckless against Japan the competition highlighted a number of short-falls.
Firstly, our lack of strike-power. Cahill and Kewell had good campaigns which could have been great had either been paired alongside an out-and-out striker (such as the injured Josh Kennedy) or employed in their true positions of attacking midfield and left-wing, respectively.
Secondly, our defence. The left-back position is a sticking point. No one can question David Carney’s commitment in the jersey but his ability at international level is negligible and his defensive naïvety was a big factor in Japan’s winner.
And then there’s the issue of age. It’s a little over three years to go to Brazil 2014 and by then our goalkeeper (Schwarzer) will be 41, and our centre-half pairing (Neil and Sasa Ognenovski) will be 36 and 35. Then there’s Brett Emerton (who’ll be 35), Mark Bresciano (34), Kewell (35) and Cahill (34), who have all expressed an interest in competing. In short, we are on course to have the oldest side in World Cup history.
Yes, only one month after the Asian Cup final loss there are genuine reasons to feel glum. But there are also numerous positives. There’s the emergence of new talent. Matt McKay’s vision and passing was the highlight of the Uzbek drubbing. Though there is some debate as to where his best position is there is a little doubt that the Brisbane Roar captain looks the real deal. Robbie Kruse is another who displayed little trouble moving up a grade. Ognenovski looks to be the answer to our central defensive dilemma, if only in the short-term, with his performances making me wonder what difference he might have made had he been employed there last June. And then there’s the continued progress of Brett Holman, Carl Valeri, Mile Jedinak and Neil Kilkenny – good players becoming even better in the green and gold.
But one of the biggest positives for me is coach Holger Osieck. I was never one of Pim Verbeek biggest haters (he did a good job taking us through the World Cup qualifiers and once there the Serbia victory was admirable, the Ghana game may have been the same had Kewell not be cruelly dismissed and the German humbling rendered not that bad considering they went on to do similar demolition jobs against world heavyweights England and Argentina). However, in Osiek we have a man not afraid to make the big decisions. Not hesitant to change formations if something’s not working (just look at the license to thrill that he handed McKay in the semi). He also doesn’t shirk when it comes to dropping or subbing our big names. As much as I wasn’t in favour of relegating Emerton to the bench against Japan, or replacing Cahill and Kewell late on, a large part of me was impressed that an Australian coach would take such a stand.
So one month on, the positives of Asian Cup 2011 surely outweigh the negatives. We fared better than many expected and went some way towards putting 2007’s disappointing Asian campaign to rest. And here we sit one month away from our next meet up, a friendly against Germany on March 29. With 18 months to go until our next competitive match there is an opportunity, should the powers that be use that time wisely, to mould a squad capable of taking us to the World Cup and going further than we’ve ever gone before. And then have us in fighting-fit for the Australian-hosted Asian Cup 2015 where we can go one step further.