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If Socceroos coach Holger Osieck’s squad selection is anything to go by, then Australia will be going all out for silverware in this month’s Asian Cup.
Eschewing blooding younger players in preparation for 2014 World Cup qualifying, Osieck has stuck with the tried and tested ‘Golden Generation’ which he believes can win the tournament.
Nineteen overseas-based players have been selected in the 23-man squad, including 12 members of Pim Verbeek’s 2010 World Cup squad. Despite a few surprise names, Osieck has decided to take the safe route, opting for a core of players who have been together for nearly a decade and are looking for a chance to end their international careers on a high.
While some observers were disappointed players such as Nikita Rukavytsya, James Troisi and, initially, Tommy Oar were not given the nod, the harsh reality is that few of the next generation of Socceroos are ready for the step up to international tournament football.
Australia’s ‘Golden Generation’ consists of a group of players familiar to international football fans. Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Brett Emerton, Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill have all played for club and country at the highest level and boast more than 250 caps between them. Dinamo Moscow’s Luke Wilkshire, Blackpool’s David Carney and Gold Coast United midfielder Jason Culina are also old heads who will bring a solid work ethic to the starting XI.
The wildcard in Osieck’s pack is the enigmatic Brett Holman, the much-maligned attacking midfielder who could turn out to be the key to Australia’s Asian success. Once the subject of a (rather harsh) YouTube compilation of bad touches in a game against Holland (below), the AZ Alkmaar star was the bright spot of the Socceroos campaign in South Africa, scoring two goals and capably handling the attacking duties while Cahill and Kewell served suspensions for red cards.
Twelve months ago I would have been laughed out of the country for saying this, but Holman’s form could be the key to Australia’s success in Doha. If the 26 year-old can take some of the attention away from Cahill and Kewell when going forward, the Socceroos could have a real chance to make it to the semi-finals and beyond.
There are a few surprises in Osieck’s 23. Middlesbrough’s Scott McDonald has returned to the fold after missing out on the World Cup squad and will be looking to open his Socceroos account after 20 games without a goal. One would venture that if he can’t find the net against 142nd ranked India in the opening group game, he won’t be given another chance.
Another player new to the set-up is defender Sasa Ognenovski, who despite only recently made his debut against Egypt could find himself partnering Lucas Neill in the heart of the defence. His lack of Socceroo experience is offset by his familiarity with the Asian game, having helped Korean club side Seongnam Ilhwa win the Asian Champions League and taking out this seasons’ Asian Footballer of the Year Award. (I have a particular soft spot for him as when I introduced myself to him for the first time while writing a training with the Brisbane Roar feature, he replied, "Yeah, the boss told me there was a fat, Pommie c*** training with us.")
The squad does have a top-heavy feel about it, and when you move past the starting XI, the experience starts to drop off quite precipitously. AEK Athens’ forward Nathan Burns (four caps), Brisbane Roar midfielder Matt McKay (six) and Leeds’ midfielder Neil Kilkenny (two) all lack the necessary experience and if injury strikes any of the veterans, it will be interesting to see how the wide-eyed recruits will fill the void. Reserve goalkeeper is a position of concern too, with Brad Jones (two) and Nathan Coe (uncapped) both untested at this level.
The feel-good story of the 23 is forward Robbie Kruse, a 22 year-old forward who has resurrected his career at Melbourne Victory after falling out of favour at Brisbane Roar. 10 goals in 15 games so far this season has made him the poster boy for the struggling A-League, with pundits claiming he’s proof it’s possible to play in Australia and make the national team.
More confusing is the drafting in of Utrecht frontman – and former A-League poster boy – Tommy Oar as an injury replacement for Hull’s Richard Garcia, as only a few weeks ago Osieck had said he didn’t have what it took at the highest level.
"I mean, [he has] talent, yes. We all know it and down the road I think he will be part of the Socceroos, but at the present stage he obviously seems to lack of little bit of what is required at the top level," was Holger’s assessment when quizzed about leaving him out of his initial squad.
Australia will be hoping their second showing at the Asian Cup will be more successful than their first. Buoyed by an impressive World Cup performance the previous year under Guus Hiddink, many fans – and a few players too – felt winning the 2007 Asian Cup was a fait accompli. Talking openly about winning the tournament and bringing home Australia’s first trophy, Graham Arnold’s Socceroos endured a torrid time in the Asian heat, barely drawing with Oman before succumbing to the eventual champions Iraq 3-1 in their second group game (video below). Only a win against lowly Thailand saw them progress to the knock-out stages where a penalty shoot-out loss to Japan saw the Aussies return home with their tails between their legs.
This time around, with the strength of their first XI and their coach’s need to justify his appointment, anything less than the semi-finals will be viewed as a disappointment.The 2011 AFC Asian Cup kicks off in Qatar on January 7th with the final taking place on 29 January. Australia’s Group C games are against India (January 10), South Korea (January 14) and Bahrain (January 18).
**STOP PRESS** Australia have this morning been confirmed as the hosts of the 2015 Asian Cup
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