The Squad: Mark Schwarzer (Middlesbrough), Zeljko Kalac (AC Milan), Ante Covic (Hammarby); Michael Beauchamp (Central Coast), Craig Moore (Newcastle United), Lucas Neill (Blackburn Rovers), Tony Popovic (Crystal Palace), Mark Milligan (Sydney FC); Marco Bresciano (Parma), Tim Cahill (Everton), Scott Chipperfield (Basel), Jason Culina (PSV Eindhoven), Brett Emerton (Blackburn Rovers), Vince Grella (Parma), Stan Lazaridis (unattached), Josip Skoko (Wigan Athletic), Mile Sterjovski (Basel), Luke Wilkshire (Bristol City); John Aloisi (Alaves), Harry Kewell (Liverpool), Archie Thompson (PSV Eindhoven), Mark Viduka (Middlesbrough), Josh Kennedy (Dinamo Dresden)
How Qualified: 1st in Oceania, playoff against Uruguay
World Ranking: 42
Previous Appearances: (1) 1974
Coach: Guus Hiddink
Expected Line-up: (4-3-3) Schwarzer; Emerton, Moore, Neill, Chipperfield; Grella, Cahill, Culina, Bresciano, Kewell, Viduka.
After 32 long years, one of the world’s greatest sporting nations has finally returned to the grandest stage in football. After enjoying almost unparalleled success in rugby, cricket and swimming over the past decade, Australian sports fans are now revelling in the World Cup fever sweeping the nation. The script could not have been written any better either, with Australia returning to the site of their only previous World Cup appearance all the way back in 1974. It wasn’t done easily either, with qualification clinched in a nail-biting penalty shootout against Uruguay in Sydney’s Telstra Stadium. As usual, Australia swept the Oceanian nations aside with several games featuring cricket-like scorelines but Uruguay presented a real test. If Australia could edge them out, they would qualify for the tournament with the knowledge that they had defeated a two-time World Cup winner and had bested some of the most talented players on the planet.
In goal, Mark Schwarzer and Zeljko Kalac present two very capable and competitive options. While Schwarzer is generally the first choice ‘keeper, Kalac appears to have become more popular under Hiddink than under Farina. Schwarzers’ penalty heroics in the playoff should see him as the first name on the Australian team sheet however. Defensively is where Australia appear their weakest. The central defensive options available to Hiddink are Tony Popovic, Craig Moore and Michael Beauchamp. Popovic has hardly featured this season for his club side Crystal Palace as younger and hungrier players have replaced him, while Moore has lost the Australian captaincy after missing the bulk of the season through injury. This is to say nothing of Michael Beauchamp who, although extremely impressive in the Australian A-League, has no experience at anything approaching this level. This lack of depth has necessitated Lucas Neill switching from right back to centre back where he will likely start alongside Moore. While both men are more than able players who feature regularly in their English Premier League sides, they will not cause many strikers to lose too much sleep. Out wide, Brett Emerton and Scott Chipperfield are more converted wingers than they are fullbacks and, while both are excellent going forward, there are real question marks around their defensive solidity. Sydney FC youngster Mark Milligan is included in the squad despite not representing his country in a senior international before the World Cup warm up matches and is there more for the experience of the trip rather than to provide an option, while the waning Stan Lazaridis is well past his best and cannot be expected to cause any problems for opponents.
The midfield is far stronger and this is where Australia are at their best. Parma’s Vince Grella is the anchor with his tough-tackling, hard-working style epitomising what Australia are about. With him holding the middle of the pitch, Everton star Tim Cahill and PSV Eindhoven’s Jason Culina are given more freedom to join in attacking forays and contribute some goals. Cahill is an extremely important player with his late-runs into the box a real goal scoring threat. He also adds a bit of real class to the midfield which Grella and Culina, for all their industry, do lack somewhat. Further forward, expect to see Marco Bresciano and Harry Kewell operate as wingers but also as second and third strikers. Essentially, the formation is a 4-5-1 when defending and a 4-3-3 when in possession. Kewell is the key for Australia. If there is any chance of making the second round, Kewell must be at his best. His pace and skill is vital to Australia’s attack, while his vision and experience bring his team mates into the game. He is versatile as well, equally adept on the left flank or in a central striking role. All of Australia is praying for the return of the Kewell of old. Bresciano is almost as important, with his speed and determination making him a real headache for defenders. He is also a danger from set pieces and his long range shooting is something to behold.
These five are ably supported by Basel’s Mile Sterjovski, Wigan Athletic’s Josip Skoko and Bristol City’s tireless Luke Wilkshire. Hiddink appears to be a fan of Wilkshire and, despite only playing in the third tier of English league football, he brings another edge to the Australian side with his relentless running and powerful tackling. Skoko is something of an enigma, brilliant at times and a complete passenger at others. He has the ability to score plenty of goals however and his distribution is up there with the best in this squad. Sterjovski is equally effective as a striker or winger and it is this versatility more than anything else which sees him included.
Up front, Hiddink has a few varied options available to him with the strength and class of Mark Viduka, the work rate and aerial threat of John Aloisi, the electric pace of Archie Thompson and the looming presence of Josh Kennedy. While Viduka is the clear first choice, Aloisi is a tremendous impact player late in the game. His winning penalty to send Australia into the tournament has forever etched his name into the annals of Australian sporting history. Thompson is another who can create problems from the bench, with speed befitting an Olympic athlete and a predator’s instinct in the penalty area. Kennedy is an altogether different prospect at around 200cm tall. His height makes him a major threat from set pieces and a real target for crosses, while his rangy frame makes him extremely difficult to dispossess. He capped his international debut against Liechtenstein with a goal and will be determined to make his mark should he get the chance.
As with all Australian sporting sides, this team wears its collective heart on its sleeve and they will be no pushovers. While Japan and Croatia may be technically superior (Brazil is clearly in another class altogether), they will fight for every ball and will make their opponents work hard for everything. Hiddink has added a touch of class and flair to the side which, combined with the extraordinary self-belief he has brought to the players, makes Australia a dangerous prospect.