In what is becoming typical fashion, the Socceroos have made life as hard as possible for themselves, needing a win over Japan or 4 points from both upcoming games this week to qualify automatically for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Ahead of these pivotal clashes, here are 4 key talking points surrounding the Australian national team.
Will Australia do an England?
To have a midfielder who was part of an undefeated team last season as well as one of the standout players of the 2017/18 Premier League season in the same squad is enough to make the fans of most countries rub their hands together. Australia have some genuine talent in Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic, however, as Fabio Capello will tell you, two star midfielders does not guarantee success.
As cruel as it would be to leave a player at the peak of their game warming the bench, managers are limited to building teams around one marauding playmaker, not two. Individually, Gerrard and Lampard were the obvious first choice options on merit throughout the 2000s, however, their failure to click for the national team is indicative of England’s inability to live up to expectation.
Ange Postecoglou is someone who has never been afraid to drop players (seldom perhaps Robbie Kruse), but his successor may need to have the guts to make the tough call on form vs formation when it comes to Australia’s prize assets.
Can Leckie finally fire in front of goal?
Speaking of prize assets, there’s no doubt Mathew Leckie has ability. He dazzled throughout an otherwise lacklustre 2014 World Cup and has been a first team pillar since, but he has struggled to reach that elusive ‘next level’. Two goals and a MOTM performance on debut against Stuttgart, Leckie is obviously moving quickly to establish himself as a goal-scorer at new club Hertha BSC. However, he is showing some impressive improvements in other areas of his game too.
In a tough 2-0 loss to Dortmund, Leckie was the highest rating of his teammates, winning nine aerial duels, intercepted in defence three times and, probably the most important stat given his track record, was only dispossessed twice.
Two games in is too early to be making bold claims, but could this be the year that the 26 year-old reaches the next echelon for club and country?
Is Ryan still number one?
Another familiar face in the Postecoglou era is Mat Ryan, who has arguably been the most consistent keeper since Schwarzer. That being said, he is prone to the occasional lapse in concentration and recent performances for both Brighton and Australia haven’t done him total justice. His issue is that there are two form keepers on his tail.
The proverbial runner-up, Mitch Langerak, has been ruled out of Thursday night’s clash with Japan to finalise what will likely be a move to Levante. Despite a string of strong performances last season, he is yet to make an appearance for Stuttgart and this has played into the hands of Ryan at the right time. However, he can’t rest on his laurels, because should Langerak finally get a chance at first team consistency, he’ll be a contender.
The dark horse in this race is Eugene Galekovic, whose time to shine has been a long time coming in the eyes of many Aussie fans. Grinding against the trend of chasing stardom overseas, Galekovic spent a ten-year tenure at Adelaide United before recently making the switch to Melbourne City. The former Reds captain’s loyalty has arguably put him at a disadvantage with the stigma of being ‘untested’ in Australian football still hovering above the A-League’s finest. Should Ryan slip up, the Socceroos could provide the platform for the long-awaited underdog story.
What will Ange’s lasting legacy be?
Japan have never been an easy opponent and they will relish the opportunity to condemn the Socceroo’s World Cup ambitions to a pipedream. What this could mean for Ange Postecoglou’s reputation is more damaging than the revered manager perhaps deserves. However, Ange doesn’t really have anyone to blame but himself. There were few positives from the 2014 World Cup, but the Socceroos’ manager claimed that there were foundations to build on in the coming years with a relatively fresh squad.
With the amount of formation, style and player changes we’ve seen over the past three years, Claudio Ranieri would be quite justified in handing over his title as the ‘Tinkerman’. Ange’s inability to find a formula that works just right has meant that there is concrete chemistry in the team, and this was blatantly obvious in the shocker against Thailand. A well-oiled machine like Japan could rip open any gaps and imperfections, so Postecoglou will be relying on his key players to have resounding influence on the game (luckily most have the domestic form to do so).
A win or even draw against the Samurai Blue and a statement win against Thailand will allow Ange Postecoglou to leave the managerial position in high esteem with the Australian football community, but anything short of that could see a big swing in public opinion towards the manager, and more worryingly, for Australian football.