Ange Postecoglou’s Asian Cup master-plan is now just one game from completion.
A campaign that’s grown in stature can now crown a remarkable and well-planned rise for the Socceroos; a team that lost all three group games at the Brazil World Cup and were pilloried by some – mostly ignorant observers - for their patchy form and lack of goal-scoring options during five friendlies following their South American adventure in June.
The seeds were sown 14 months ago when Postecoglou was installed as head coach. The World Cup showed signs of blooming despite the incredibly short preparation time, but it was always going to be too much too soon. Yet you could sense something there.
As all smart people do, learn from your mistakes big and small. And that's what Postecoglou and his coaching team and analysts did - they pored over in minute detail every player, every game, every stat, every part of their preparation and training.
This resulted in formational tweaks and some key learnings about tournament football where, in the case of the Asian Cup, to win it you’ve got to come out on top after six games in 23 days.
The Socceroos have shown they learn quickly and have adjusted their rotations accordingly to get the maximum out of the squad.
This, along with the growing belief, togetherness and maturity of this group – Massimo Luongo being a prime example – has seen the Socceroos rise to the challenge in spectacular fashion. The Socceroos have challenged tennis and cricket and have, for one sensational January, given the Aussies sporting calendar a new, fresh hue.
Now – five games in to this fabulous Asian Cup – we see the side’s true colours. It’s an exciting team to watch. Fast, aggressive and fearless. They play with a spirit and work-rate that resonates with fans. They are young, hungry and have much to prove.
It all augurs well for up-coming FIFA World Cup qualifiers for Russia 2018.
And 12 goals from ten different scorers shows their threats come from more than just one remarkable talisman – though Tim Cahill will no doubt be in the thick of it come the opening whistle.
If a team is a reflection of their coach then this is a side that won’t die wondering on Saturday night.
Korea Republic are less entertaining but they’ve combined stereotypical German efficiency in defence with Korea's growing reputation for technical ability going forward. It’s been a potent mix and a perfect tournament for the Taeguk Warriors, who’ve flown under the radar with their performances but have ground out results.
And, of course, Uli Steilike's men are yet to concede a goal. And have already beaten the team they are about to face in the Asian Cup final. The estimated 17 million viewers back in Korea will be praying that goals against stat stays that way and they can jag an Asian Cup for the first time in 55 years.
Australia are yet to win an Asian Cup - though this is only their third since joining the AFC a decade ago that they've competed in the region's showpiece event. Still, the sting of losing four years ago in the final to Japan is another layer of motivation for Ange's Aussies.
This final could go into extra-time and even penalties. Most finals are tight, cagey affairs – particularly in the first half – and this should be no different.
The Socceroos are the fittest team in this tournament but having one day less to rest may be a factor – however a large and noisy home crowd should get them over the line in what will be a gripping finale to one of the most beautiful tournaments I’ve ever witnessed.
Get ready folks, the Socceroos are set to take you on another roller-coaster of emotions with a new generation of heroes. Whoever wins, the celebrations will be long and loud in Sydney town.
The Socceroos will face Korea Republic in the AFC Asian Cup Final at Stadium Australia on Saturday 31 January (8.00pm local kick off). Click here to purchase tickets.
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