The Socceroos have enjoyed a near flawless preparation as they head into Saturday night’s opening 2018 FIFA World Cup™ match against France.
They’ll now need to put all they have worked on under Bert van Marwijk over the last four weeks into practice against Les Bleus, one of the nations favoured to go all the way in Russia.
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Can this Socceroos squad – the majority of which know how to perform on the big stage – deliver against France?
Has van Marwijk’s philosophy been mastered in time to blunt the French attack?
We answer some of the burning questions for Australia’s clash with France on Saturday night at 8pm live on SBS and Optus Sport.
The bonus for Socceroos boss Bert van Marwijk heading into the France clash is he has a squad where every player is extremely fit and in good form.
The intense training camp in Turkey allowed the Dutchman to get every player up to speed with how he wants the team to play and each individual’s specific role.
If the two pre-FIFA World Cup™ friendlies against the Czech Republic and Hungary are any guide, then van Marwijk is close to finalising his starting XI.
For the most part of both matches, Australia were defensively sound, with Mat Ryan likely to get the nod in goal behind a back-four of Josh Risdon, Trent Sainsbury, Mark Milligan and Aziz Behich.
In midfield, Aaron Mooy has carried his superb Premier League form into the national team, with his experience and class likely to be pivotal against France’s engine-room stars.
While Mooy has formed an excellent partnership with Mile Jedinak in the midfield over the last couple of years, he’s also worked well with Massimo Luongo during van Marwijk’s reign.
Mathew Leckie and Robbie Kruse now only offer experience in the wide areas which van Marwijk craves, but their speed and desire to go forward quickly looks to perfectly suit the boss’ approach.
Andrew Nabbout, who scored his maiden international goal against Czech Republic, has started every game under van Marwijk and he’s developed a good understanding with his wide men.
It appears to be a battle between Tom Rogic and Jackson Irvine for the starting spot in the ‘No.10’ role.
While Rogic’s silky skills and dribbling ability offer a huge goal-threat, Irvine’s high-energy and running in behind defences offer a different danger and might suit Australia’s game-plan against France better.
Socceroos benefit from past experiences?
In 2014, the Socceroos went to the FIFA World Cup™ with a young and new-look squad with very little experience at major tournaments.
But four years on and it’s a vastly different story, with the majority of the players in Bert van Marwijk’s squad knowing what it takes to perform on the biggest stage.
It comes from that experience in Brazil four years ago, as well as winning the AFC Asian Cup on home soil in 2015.
Throw in the FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia 12 months ago and most of this current squad have that solid base behind them to be able to produce their best when it counts.
It should ensure the players won’t be overawed by France’s array of superstars come kick-off in Kazan on Saturday night (8pm AEST) live on SBS and Optus Sport.
Mathew Leckie knows first-hand what some of the younger players would be feeling heading into the tournament opener, similar to their first game against Chile in 2014.
He’ll be stressing to them the need to go out on the pitch relaxed and just play their game.
“We really showed ourselves in Brazil, the problem we had in the first game was our nerves in the first 20-25 minutes and by then we were 2-0 down but for the rest of the game we were very good and could have scored a couple of goals,” Leckie said ahead of the France clash.
“The most important thing is to be ourselves and not be nervous about who we’re playing or the event. It’s the World Cup – the biggest stage in the world – but at the end of the day there’s 11 human beings on the other side of the pitch and we just need to embrace the moment to create good memories and what better way than to steal a result against France.”
The Arzani conundrum?
It’s been a long time since a player so tender in age has generated as much excitement from Socceroos fans as teenager Daniel Arzani has.
An outstanding second-half of the Hyundai A-League season with Melbourne City catapulted the 19-year-old into Bert van Marwijk’s 23-man squad and the youngest player from any nation to be in Russia.
So could he actually start against France?
There’s no doubt Arzani possesses the quality and confidence to take on the galaxy of stars in the French side.
His precocious skill and ability to bring his teammates into play with an incisive run or pass would certainly ask plenty of questions of France’s defence.
But given the European giants are likely to want to play the game at their tempo and enjoy the majority of possession, the extra defensive responsibility may detract from Arzani’s strengths.
Van Marwijk may look to use him off the bench, like he did so successfully against Hungary last weekend.
Against a tiring defence and with spaces opening up in the last 20-25 minutes, the youngster took full advantage, scoring the opening goal and playing a key pass for Jackson Irvine to set-up the winner.
If the game remains in the balance late-on against France in Kazan, it could be the perfect stage for Arzani to be introduced into the action to do his thing.
Van Marwijk’s message sinking in?
They are being dubbed ‘Atletico Australia’.
The game style and tactical discipline that Bert van Marwijk and his staff have been drumming into the Socceroos since they came together almost a month ago is being compared to Atletico Madrid.
Like the La Liga giants, Australia are hoping to adhere to a rigid style which limits space for the opposition to play as well as pressing at the right time and in the right areas to launch swift counter-attacks in transition.
From what we’ve seen in the last two friendlies against the Czech Republic and Hungary is that this Socceroos squad is heeding the Dutchman’s message and will set up to make life difficult for Les Bleus in Kazan.
Van Marwijk has been instilling into his players the importance of approaching the game the same way, regardless of the opposition, much like Atletico.
“Anyone who’s watched Atletico in the past years can see how structured and disciplined they are in their shape, it doesn’t really change against their opposition,” midfielder Jackson Irvine said just a couple of days out from the France clash.
“It’s the way it’s ingrained in them, to be able to press and be organised in that way. I think that’s the main thing he’s tried to get into us as a squad, if you get it right then it means you don’t have to adapt to the opposition.
“You can do it against any structure and shape. It’s all about distances, communication and making sure you close lines. Atletico are one of the best in the world at it, it’s tough to get right.
“We think we’ve got a very close structure in place that’s going to be capable of getting results in this tournament.”
Weight of pressure on France?
Les Bleus not only head to Russia one of the world’s top-ranked nations but with many tipping them to go all the way and win the FIFA World Cup™.
On paper, France is expected to have little trouble advancing out of Group C
While they possess a squad dripping with talent, how will Didier Deschamps side deal with that weight of expectation?
And playing the French is the opening match could be a blessing for the Socceroos if history is anything to go by.
In their last eight opening matches in major tournaments, France has won just three times, with two of them courtesy of last-minute winners.
It gives the Socceroos the advantage of going into the clash as underdogs, but full of belief they can cause a FIFA World Cup™ upset.
“At this level, everyone is even, the win is there for the taking,” Socceroos midfielder Massimo Luongo said in the lead-up to Saturday’s clash.
“Individually, yeah, they’ve got some big, world-class players especially in midfield.
“As I said, we’ve been working on a way to play as a team and the manager’s experience is doing it with a really good team, not individuals. It’s up for the taking.”
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