Unfancied Australia will aim to surprise under Van Marwijk in Russia

Following a dry spell that saw them starved of World Cup action between 1974 and 2006, Russia 2018 will see Australia appear at their fourth successive finals.

The Socceroos have been written off by many before a ball has been kicked, and qualification from a group that also features France, Denmark and Peru won’t be easy.

In years gone by, Australia were blessed with a plethora of talent with the likes of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer, Mark Bresciano and Brett Emerton all instantly recognisable to most football fans.

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The star names are few and far between now, and 38-year-old Tim Cahill is the sole survivor from the ‘Golden Generation’.

There is still lots of quality, particularly in midfield, and both Tom Rogic and Aaron Mooy are coming off excellent seasons with Glasgow Celtic and Huddersfield Town respectively.

Goalkeeper Mat Ryan excelled between the posts for Brighton & Hove Albion in his first Premier League campaign, while captain Mile Jedinak had been a solid performer for some time now in England’s top two divisions.

The Socceroos also include the tournament’s youngest player in 19-year-old excitement machine Daniel Arzani.

The Melbourne City attacker recently pledged his allegiance to Australia over Iran for international football, and he has already looked sharp in the build-up friendlies.

There are plenty of unknown quantities who will be unfamiliar to those who don’t follow the domestic A-League; Andrew Nabbout (now with Urawa Red Diamonds in Japan), Josh Risdon and Dimitri Petratos all had strong 2017/18 seasons on home soil.

An exhausting qualification campaign saw the Socceroos navigate the longest path ever to secure their spot in Russia; they played 22 games between June 2015 and November 2017 when they overcame Honduras in a two-legged playoff.

That journey took them to the likes the likes of Tajikistan, Bangladesh and Kyrgyzstan in the early stages, before clashes with fellow Asian big hitters Saudi Arabia and Japan.

The experience took its toll, and coach Ange Postecoglou, who delivered a first Asian Cup title in 2015, walked away two weeks after qualification was confirmed.

In January this year, Bert van Marwijk was given the task of guiding the Socceroos in Russia having overseen Saudi Arabia’s successful qualification for the same tournament.

The 66-year-old also took the Netherlands to the World Cup Final in 2010 where they were beaten by an extra time goal by Spaniard Andres Iniesta.

Van Marwijk, however, has only taken the reins on a temporary basis with former Socceroos striker Graham Arnold already pencilled in for his second stint as national team boss once the World Cup ends.

Last week it emerged that Van Marwijk is so dedicated to his short stint in charge that he is paying for some of his assistant coaches out of his own pocket after Football Federation Australia (FFA) failed to do so.

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Meanwhile, Postecoglou fired a shot by stating that Australia football is going backwards in terms of its development, blaming short-term thinking and a lack of a broad vision at the top of the pyramid.

“At the moment, it’s still about this World Cup or the next tournament, and eventually that will catch up with us,” he told The Guardian.

“I think we’re going to find it really hard to compete in Asia. We’re already finding it difficult at youth and under age levels.

“The challenge even in the future to qualify for senior World Cups will become more difficult because more and more Asian countries put money into their youth, and we don’t. If anything, we’re going the other way.”

Having spent eleven years in and around the international set up at different age levels, Postecoglou knows what he’s talking about, but with the World Cup upon us this is a debate for another day.

Van Marwijk is playing the hand he has been dealt and there have been some positive signs – the Socceroos beat the Czech Republic 4-0 and Hungary 2-1 in their two warm up friendlies.

Tactically, the Dutchman has veered well away from the three-at-the-back system adopted by Postecoglou towards the end of his tenure.

Instead, we’re seeing a very compact 4-4-2 set up and very little pressing in the opposition’s half of the pitch.

While the Socceroos possess quality in the middle of the park, the same can’t be said defensively.

Trent Sainsbury and Mark Milligan look to be the first choice partnership at centre back, with athletic duo Josh Risdon on the right and Aziz Behich at left back.

All four have given cause for concern in the warm up games, and they will face much better opposition in Russia.

Further forward, Van Marwijk has a bit of a headache to deal with – how can he fit Mile Jedinak, Massimo Luongo, Jackson Irvine, Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic into the same midfield?

The answer is that he can’t, so we will likely see two of the above playing centrally, with Matthew Leckie on the right wing and Robbie Kruse on the opposite flank.

Both have plyed their trade in Germany in recent years and have the discipline required to help out the full backs in Van Marwijk’s system.

However, there are plenty of calls for young gun Daniel Arzani to get the nod over Kruse, though he is more likely to be used as an impact player at this stage.

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Up front, a knee injury has dogged target man Tomi Juric in the build up to the tournament, while Jamie Maclaren’s run of form towards the end of the season at Hibernian earned him a spot in the final 23 after he had been omitted from the initial extended squad.

Andrew Nabbout starred for the Newcastle Jets in the A-League last season before moving to the J-League and adds a physical presence to the forward line.

The debate over what to do with Tim Cahill remains but it appears that both player and coach are comfortable with a bit-part role for a player who barely managed to kick a ball competitively for the best part of nine months.

There were some slightly worrying post-game comments from Van Marwijk following the narrow win over Hungary, with the coach citing fatigue from a heavy training load as an issue.

“Maybe some journalists saw it but we worked very hard the last few weeks and last few days we are a little bit more relaxed but today I saw already, after half an hour, that we were very tired and when you are very tired then you have to play more simple,” he said.

“We tried to force something sometimes in some situations that’s not good but they were tired and I’m very happy that we were three weeks so hard and we didn’t get injuries until now. That’s very positive I think because they will get stronger and stronger now and get everyday more rest.”

Van Marwijk pulled no punches when asked about the quality of the performance, describing it as “bad” due to too much running with the ball and passing it at the wrong speed.

He has just a few days now to iron out those problems before the Socceroos open Group C with the France game in Kazan on Saturday.

Even the most optimistic of Socceroos fans will admit that taking anything from that fixture would be unexpected but a positive performance could stand them in good stead for winnable contests against Denmark and Peru.

The Author

Neil Sherwin

Co-editor of BackPageFootball.com. Writes mostly on Premier League and A-League with contributions to other sites including TheFootballSack, InBedWithMaradona and Bloomberg's BSports. Has featured on The Guardian's Football Weekly.

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