The Socceroos can hold their heads high after a gallant performance against Chile, although they will not enjoy analyzing the first 20 minutes of this particular FIFA World Cup campaign.
With the Netherlands and Spain still to come, the Socceroos will take a great deal out of their opening encounter – not least the performance of the outstanding Mathew Leckie, the number of chances created against a very good South American opponent and another World Cup goal for Tim Cahill.
But if they are to rescue their campaign from here, there will need to be some painful examination of the opening exchanges against Chile.
Coach Ange Postecoglou set up the team to allow the wide players, in Leckie and Tommy Oar, to stay high and break early to make Chile think twice about their own forward movement.
But the Socceroos failed to execute the plan as Chile made the most of a nervy early defensive display.
When Chile struck twice in the space of a couple of minutes, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in Australia having serious flash backs to Germany four years ago.
The defence struggled to retain shape against Chile’s sharp movement and appeared to lack leadership – an older, wiser head to organise a more compact approach.
In those brief moments – and despite the exceptional response to that adversity – Australia’s hopes of a result were gone.
Very probably, their World Cup hopes went with it, although there were enough positives for Postecoglou to rally the players ahead of the Netherlands’ match.
Better ball retention against the Dutch, who will be super-confident after their 5-1 mauling of Spain, will be crucial to the Socceroos’ slim hopes.
Too often in the opening stages against Chile, players were guilty of forcing passes and giving away the ball too easily.
If Australia start sloppily against the Netherlands, they can expect to be punished just as severely by Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and company.
But belief is a powerful tool and the players will take plenty of that from their second-half performance. Their prospect of causing an upset lies in their ability to put the Dutch under pressure. Without belief, the game is up before they kick-off.
There were no surprises in the starting line-up against Chile and, aside from the injury concerns over Ivan Franjic, there is little reason for personnel changes against the Netherlands.
Jason Davidson started ahead of the more experienced Matt McKay and did enough to suggest he will stay there.
The pace of Oar and Leckie and the steadying influence provided by the experienced Cahill, Mile Jedinak and Mark Bresciano will have been noted by Louis van Gaal.
Even defensively, the Socceroos were more compact as the match wore on, which allowed the midfield to press higher to win back the ball.
Chile were forced into making mistakes and speed on the break became a potent Socceroos weapon.
And when you’ve got Cahill to aim at, you’ve always got a chance. He has now scored at three World Cups – something even the great Diego Maradona did not achieve.
Before the match kicked off in Cuiaba, there was a cloud of gloom hanging over Australia.
The Socceroos were seen as rank outsiders with little chance of getting out of their group. Some punters were even tipping that they wouldn’t score a goal.
That particular prediction has turned out to be off the mark but the chances of progressing to the knockout first are more remote than ever.
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