Andrew Flint –
Australia have a nigh-on impossible task to make headway in their group, despite being the reigning Asian Football Confederation (AFC) champions. Facing World Champions Germany, albeit with a weakened experimental squad, and Chile (ranked third and fourth in the world by FIFA respectively) leaves their best hopes of moving with anything to show for their troubles in their clash with Cameroon, a side they have never faced before. They have been left with one of the longest journeys and shortest preparation periods after arriving in Russia too, with the squad only due to land in Sochi four days before their opening fixture against Germany.
Their 3-2 World Cup qualification win over Saudi Arabia on 8 June has given them a last-gasp lifeline in the race for an automatic place at Russia 2018 with two group games left. Australia now lie level on points with (but with an inferior goal difference too) vanquished opponents Saudi Arabia, with a crucial trip to face group leaders Japan still to come. Their presence in the AFC, which offers 4.5 places at each World Cup, was partly a calculated gamble at giving them a better chance of qualifying than the previous 0.5 places on offer via the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) route.
Coach Ange Postecoglou has been an enlightening coach for the Socceroos, with his religious work ethic and revolutionary tactics. He has played a variety of formations during his four-year tenure, including a 4-3-2-1 setup that had holding semifinalists Holland sweating at 2-1 down after 55 minutes of their group stage encounter. In recent months he has gone with a three-man defence, anchored by Inter Milan stopper Trent Sainsbury, shielded by English-based duo Mile Jedinak and Aaron Mooy, and with four attacking midfielders supporting a lone striker. It was first tried out against Iraq in a qualifier played on an inferior surface in Tehran to a negative reception from the media – a disappointing 1-1 draw was all they could muster – but the players have supported the system on the whole.
“Even though sometimes it might seem like it’s a wrong choice, we know it’s the right one because [Postecoglou] has shown it before, and we’ve shown it together as a group before, that it works,” said striker Tomi Juric after the Iraq match. All but two of the Confederations Cup squad are based abroad and have experienced a wide range of tactical disciplines, which has helped the group adapt to Postecoglou’s approach.
Despite the tetchy relationship he has held with the domestic media, his long-term vision is paramount to his plan. Expectations regarding results are not likely to be a sticking point at this tournament, which has produced a cautious curiosity to see how his players fare. “We have invested two or three years in them,” Postecoglou told Australian Associated Press on Wednesday, “but I think, over this next period, it will be interesting to see how far they can go as footballers and how far the team can go.”
Australia – Opponents
Opening matches don’t get much tougher than world champions Germany at the magnificent Fisht Olympic Stadium on 19 June, although as previously stated Joachim Löw has named a youthful squad with many big names rested. Next up is Cameroon in Saint Petersburg three days later – who like Germany have named an under-strength selection, and will be targeted by Postecoglou if he has any intentions of doing more than just make up the numbers. Finally, Chile await in Moscow; by that stage, both side’s fates could already have been decided, but with by far the most experienced squad in the tournament – with an average of 50 caps per member – the South American champions will be tough to challenge.
Australia – What To Expect
While their real prospects of making headway to the knockout stages are slim at best, expect Australia to surprise with their innovative approach. Postecoglou has bought some goodwill currency by clawing back the gap in the AFC World Cup qualification group and will stick to his guns over his playing style. They have played a very attacking style of football in recent months, although they haven’t faced the level of opposition that they will encounter in Russia so may adapt their attacking intent accordingly. Their best hope will be to avoid bottom spot in the group, but finishing ahead of either Germany or Chile is virtually impossible.
Australia – Squad
Goalkeepers: Mathew Ryan (Genk), Mitchell Langerak (VfB Stuttgart), Danny Vukovic (Sydney)
Defenders: Trent Sainsbury (Internazionale), Ryan McGowan (Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng), Alex Gersbach (Rosenborg Trondheim), Bailey Wright (Bristol City), Aziz Behich (Bursaspor), Milos Degenek (Yokohama F. Marinos), Dylan McGowan (Paços de Ferreira)
Midfielders: Mile Jedinak (Aston Villa), Mark Miligan (Baniyas), Massimo Luongo (Queens Park Rangers), Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town), Jackson Irvine (Burton Albion), Ajdin Hrustic (Groningen)
Forwards: Tim Cahill (Melbourne City), Robbie Kruse (Liaoning Whowin), Mathew Leckie (Hertha BSC), James Troisi (Melbourne Victory), Tom Rogic (Celtic), Tomi Juric (Luzern), Jamie Maclaren (Darmstadt 98)
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.