Australia may have found themselves in worse groups in this summer’s World Cup, but Group C will bring its own challenges. With France expected to dominate, the consensus is that Denmark, the Socceroos and Peru will battle it out for second spot. To come through, Australia will need to be at their best.
Peru also, have proven they’re worthy of being on the plane to Russia. They may have been the last team to qualify, but they are by no means the least deserving. After a play-off win over New Zealand, they aim to impress this summer. The intensity that is the South American qualifying process can’t be dismissed. In the likes of Paolo Guerrero, Jefferson Farfan and Edison Flores, they will add genuine quality to the mix.
So what of Australia’s chances? With Ange Postecoglou, the team seemed to be in rude health. The 52-year-old led the country to World Cup qualification. A 3-1 aggregate victory over Honduras in a play-off, inspired by a Mile Jedinak hat-trick, saw qualification secured for the fourth World Cup in a row.
After 22 games, it was a huge toll on both the manager and the side; however, the endeavour was suitably rewarded. But it came at a price. Signalling the intense professional and personal pressure he felt in the job, the former Australian international walked away from the job. With that, a steady pair of hands were required. In came Bert van Marwijk, the former Borrusia Dortmund and Netherlands manager.
Van Marwijk was the right fit at the right time, on paper at least. He had major tournament experience and this was the primary trait required. However, his reign got off to a poor start in a friendly game with Norway in March.
A hat-trick for Norwegian striker Ola Kamara helped his side to a 4-1 win. Van Marwijk may have said in the aftermath that he could not work miracles after only such a short time in the job. However, Australia were a cohesive unit before he arrived and his job was to endeavour to maintain the status quo on the pitch. Miracles are not what got the Socceroos to Russia; it was hard work, organisation, and sprinkles of class.
In his second game in charge, there was more structure to Australia. In a game at Fulham’s Craven Cottage against Colombia, Massimo Luongo and Tom Rogic made an impact when the duo started, and Australia frustrated their opponents on a night when Radamel Falcao failed to land a shot on target. Australia, though, slowly got themselves into the game and under their Dutch manager, they found a groove.
Van Marwijk is a pragmatist. In his playing days he faced a mountain of injuries – indeed he should have spent more time on the field for his country as opposed to the one game in which he lined out for his country against Yugoslavia in 1975. But such issues forged a pragmatic viewpoint, on which he has built his managerial philosophy.
His primary goal in Russia will be progression. Progression from Group C and beyond. His disciplined persona will seep through into his side’s performances and a resilience could and should well build. It will be relevant when they take on what will be robust opposition.
Before their opening game with France in the Kazan arena – home of Russian Premier League side Ruban Kazan – on the 16th of June, van Marwick’s side will have lined out twice more. The first game is at the beginning of the same month in another unorthodox location for the Australian faithful – the NV Arena in Austria. There they will play not Austria, but a Czech Republic side who themselves are rebuilding after failing to qualify for this summer’s tournament.
This useful test against European opposition; considering they will be facing two European teams in group C, will be followed by a final warm-up game a little over a week later against Hungary in that country’s largest stadium – the Groupama Arena.
The France match that follows is seen as the toughest they will face, and it may well be, but things don’t always transpire in an expected manner. You only need to look back to France’s home game against Luxembourg in their own qualifying campaign. It was a game that French coach Didier Deschamps was taking seriously, reflected in the likes of Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann lining out in a team that was full strength.
However, the minnows found a way to frustrate their hosts, even missing out on their own 79th-minute opportunity to sneak a win. The point is though, they illustrated the potential to close down this French side that are apparently so out of reach of Australia.
The fact of the matter though is that they are not completely out of reach. With Jedinak vital not just in World Cup qualification but also for Steve Bruce’s Aston Villa side in their push for promotion from the English Championship, his experience will be vital in southwest Russia when they take on one of the tournament’s favourites.
Jedinak will not let the occasion get to him, that much is certain. The former Crystal Palace player is a consistent performer, whose feathers won’t be ruffled by the prospect of facing Deschamps’ side. The perfect complement in midfield could and should be Mark Milligan. The defensive-minded midfielder may be plying his trade in Saudi Arabia with Al-Ahli, but he has proven in qualifying the abilities he brings to the table.
The 32-year-old has moved into defence when required, even though he is known to prefer plying his trade in midfield. Having played in China, as well as the A-League, the experienced player has also captained his country. The point here is that despite also being on the wrong side of 30, himself and Jedinak will offer a wealth of experience in the fulcrum of the Australian midfield.
Organisation and discipline will be at the epicentre of what will need to be brought to the table in Russia and these two players have that in spades. That they work well together is not in any real question. They also know how to protect each other, and when Jedinak does take those opportunities to surge forward, Milligan will be the perfect foil.
The likelihood is that Australia will start with a three man-defence. It will be on the likes of Matthew Jurman, Trent Sainsbury and Bailey Wright to protect their goalkeeper Matthew Ryan.
Jurman plays for the Suwon Samsung Bluewings, a southern-based team in South Korea. A late bloomer, he has only played a handful of games in recent months which sees him as a relatively inexperienced international. However, at club level, he has played for a small group of A-League sides, before joining the South Korean league. He came to prominence last year for the wrong reasons. In a K-League game, he made a gesture to an opponent that he was taking bribes.
Subsequently, Jurman was hit with a two-game ban. However, it did not hinder him getting a foothold in the Australian team, despite speculation at the time that Postecoglou may have been reluctant to pick him around this time as it was the same period in which the Honduras play-off was scheduled, and the former coach was reluctant to select players who lacked match fitness.
Sainsbury may be two years younger, but he has substantially more experience than his compatriot at international level. Indeed he has more experience in a variety of leagues across the globe also. Having started at Central Coast Mariners, he moved to the Dutch Eredivisie in 2014 on a two-and-a-half year deal when he joined PEC Zwolle. A relatively successful period was followed by a move to the Chinese Super League with Jiangsu Suning. Loan deals from the club have seen him ply his trade in both Serie A with Inter Milan and most recently Grasshoppers in the Swiss Super League.
What makes his presence so important, however, is what he will bring to the defensive set-up. Similar to Jurman, he is a fine athlete and a good reader of the game as well as a good header of the ball. And while he will dominate aerially, he is also good with his feet, and won’t always play the direct, long ball. Known to take the ball out of defence, he is comfortable in such situations. This will be an important factor when it comes to retaining possession against Peru, Denmark and France.
But it is in the Peruvian battle that the likes of Sainsbury may well have a significant impact. Peru will prove to be very hard to break down, as New Zealand found to their detriment. However, there is a chink in their defensive armour. In their qualification campaign, Peru conceded 10 goals from set-piece situations. Four of these concessions came from corners – and all at the far post.
Sainsbury is renowned for his aerial ability, and don’t be surprised if he or one of his defensive cohorts is at the end of a move that breaks the Peruvian defence.
Australia, though, are more than a well-structured, organised and physical team. In the evergreen Tim Cahill, they have a player of genuine quality.
Looking through something like Oddschecker and who is favourite for top goalscorer in Russia, it’s interesting to note that Cahill lies just outside of the main list of contenders. But the current Millwall player has a real opportunity to make an impact in Russia.
Under the tutelage of Neil Harris, Cahill has made a considerable impact since his improbable return to the cub that proved a launchpad for his career. The adroit attacker spent six years at the club before departing for Everton in 2004. Since then he has proven himself to be a player who is highly adaptable, such is his pedigree.
From a three-year stint in the MLS with New York Red Bulls, to sojourns in the Chinese Super League with Shanghai Shenhua and Zhejiang Greentown FC before returning back home to Melbourne City, Cahill has seen the world. The romantic return to London has worked well, with the player being as influential off the pitch as on it. Millwall currently sit in a play-off spot and Tim Cahill in next year’s Premier League isn’t an unrealistic possibility.
In Russia, though, Cahill will be critical to Australia breaking down Peruvian, French and Danish defences. Said teams will be aware of the aerial threat that belies his modest height, but the fact is Cahill is Australia’s prize asset.
The same drive and strength that makes him so good in the air is what contributes to his aggression in pursuit of the ball and in retaining it. Added to that, the adroit movements on and off the ball mean that Cahill will hold plenty of the attention of his opponents.
And in that, he may well free up time and space for the likes of Matthew Leckie, Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic; a playmaker with the eye to unlock tidy, robust defences.
If Australia are viewed as a team who can cause problems this summer on the basis that they are more than the sum of the parts, it would be ill-advised to overlook just how much ability and talent lies in said parts. Not only do Australia have the ability to stand firm against leading nations; they have the capacity to cause all sorts of problems of their own making too.