The Socceroos face World Cup quarter finalists Belgium in Liege on Friday September 5 (4.45am AEST) and play Asian rivals Saudi Arabia at the now traditional home away from home for Australian football, Fulham’s Craven Cottage on Tuesday September 9 (5am AEST). But what issues does coach Ange Postecoglou need to resolve in these games?
Who is the future in defence?
Left-back Brad Smith will almost certainly make his debut although it is worth pointing out the England youth international will not be tied to the Socceroos until he plays a competitive match — for example, an Asian Cup fixture.
Smith has just joined fellow Aussie Massimo Luongo at Swindon Town in a season long loan deal, so hopefully he can get plenty of football under his belt and be in a position to challenge for a starting berth.
His international clearance doesn’t look like arriving in time for the Belgium game but he should be available to play in London.
Provided he can get consistent minutes at West Bromwich Albion by beating out Belgian left-back Sébastien Pocognoli, Jason Davidson should remain first choice in the position for the foreseeable future after emerging from the World Cup with his reputation rather unscathed, and Smith still regarded as quite raw.
Former Central Coast defender Trent Sainsbury is also in line to make his international debut, as Postecoglou searches for a solution at the heart of his defence. Sainsbury has enjoyed a promising but injury-hit start to his European career since joining Eredivisie club PEC Zwolle, and his relationship with former Mariners keeper Mat Ryan is likely to ease his transition into the national team. Sainsbury has been heralded as a Socceroo for a while now, and his debut has been long awaited. Now it’s time for the Perth-born centre back to show what the fuss is about.
Another potential defensive debutant is centre back Bailey Wright who plies his trade with Preston North End in England’s League One. Wright has played five games already in the new season for the Lilywhites and is yet to taste defeat, conceding just twice in 410 minutes of competitive action. Wright’s solid performances should come as no surprise to regular watchers of the defender, who played over 50 times for Preston last campaign as they reached the League One playoffs, scoring four goals along the way.
With Matthew Spiranovic unavailable for these friendlies due to injury, Sainsbury and Wright have the opportunity to show that they can form a solid base at the centre of the Socceroos’ defence.
Who forms the best attacking combination?
Tim Cahill was the undoubted star of the World Cup as far as the Socceroos were concerned, and remains so. The issue with Cahill is twofold; Postecoglou must form a functional attacking team around the New York Red Bulls player, while also using friendlies to establish who is the best replacement when he is unavailable for selection. The last surviving member of the ‘golden generation’ along with Bresciano, Cahill will be 35 by the Asian Cup and Postecoglou must plan for a future without the attacking midfielder.
Tommy Oar has been deployed as a number ten by his club FC Utrecht and it is something Postecoglou is certainly open to, having used the former Brisbane Roar player there in a pre-World Cup friendly against Croatia. He was ineffective though and seemed unable to impose himself on the game, kept quiet by strong and combative opponents. Belgium are certainly not the team to play Oar in the middle against with their physically dominant midfield, so he is more likely to start out wide when facing Les Diables Rouges.
Mathew Leckie sparkled during Australia’s World Cup campaign and the winger has been in good form for German club FC Ingolstadt 04, whom he agreed to join prior to his performances in Brazil. The 23 year old has scored a goal and provided two assists in his last two matches for Ingolstadt, both dominant wins in which he started and played over 80 minutes. Leckie is expected to form a crucial part of the Socceroos’ attacking play in the years ahead, with his ability on the ball complementing Postecoglou’s possession-based approach. His pace and directness also make Leckie ideal when the Socceroos face superior sides and are forced to play on the counter.
Robbie Kruse returns to the national team after a lengthy absence during his recovery from a knee ligament tear, and he will be keen to show he is back to his explosive best. He has worn the Socceroos kit just once since Postecoglou took charge, playing just shy of 80 minutes in the 1-0 over Costa Rica in November last year. The 25 year old has yet to return to the pitch for Bayer 04 Leverkusen this season, and a deadline day loan deal was scuppered when the club elected to keep Kruse in their squad, suggesting he has a role to play this season. Kruse is a dynamic threat for the Socceroos when fully fit, so we must hope that he has fully recovered from his injury and can stay sharp.
Another winger playing in Germany is Ben Halloran, who earned his spot in Australia’s World Cup squad on the back of a great finish to the season with Fortuna Düsseldorf, scoring five goals and assisting one in his final six games. He has begun this season solidly, setting up a goal in a 2-2 draw on the opening day of the season. He has featured sporadically since, as Fortuna have gone through a period of inconsistency. Halloran is unlikely to feature in a fully fit Socceroos lineup, but that will surely further motivate him to take the chances he gets in the team. Like Leckie and Kruse, his pace can frighten opponents and as his run last season showed, he has improved his finishing since moving to Europe.
Tomi Juric’s time has come. With a dearth of true number nines in Australia currently, the hope is that Juric can fill the void. There are question marks over his temperament, attitude and consistency, but there is no doubt that Juric has serious talent. The 23 year old has represented Australia on three occasions and scored one goal, all at the East Asian Cup in 2013. His 8 goals in 18 appearances for Western Sydney Wanderers last A-League season, combined with his strong all-round performances in the Asian Champions League have sealed his selection. Constant Mark Viduka comparisons don’t appear to be going away any time soon, and if Juric can be half the player the ‘V-Bomber’ was, he’ll definitely add to his three Socceroos caps.
Finding a threatening counter attacking combination against a powerful Belgian side will be high on Postecolgou’s list of priorities, as will discovering a more fluid, patient attacking quartet (or trio, depending on the formation) against Saudi Arabia.
Which midfielder is best suited to partner skipper Mile Jedinak?
Or to phrase it another way, who is Mark Bresciano’s long-term replacement?
It could well be the man that Bresciano has just replaced in the Socceroos squad, Terry Antonis. The Sydney FC midfielder strained his hamstring in a preseason friendly and had to withdraw from the squad, an unfortunate injury at a cruel time. Antonis has played three times for the Socceroos, with his lone start coming in a 9-0 rout over Guam. He missed the first 18 rounds of the 2013/14 A-League season with a ruptured thigh muscle, but came back to be instrumental in Sydney’s run towards the finals series. He stayed fit for the remainder of the season and played every minute of Sydney’s last ten matches. Hopefully Antonis can return to his best once again and earns selection for the next squad because despite being only 20, he is capable of partnering Jedinak deep in the midfield for Australia.
A favourite of Postecoglou, Mark Milligan has played over 30 times for the Socceroos. The Melbourne Victory captain has been deployed next to Jedinak before but the two have never quite clicked, and with Milligan now 29, there is a need to look to the future. His inclusion in the squad is no surprise as he brings plenty of attributes to the table, not least his experience and work rate. Calm and composed on the ball, it is easy to see why Postecoglou likes him. But many feel that there is a need for a more creative passer alongside the energy and defensive discipline of Jedinak.
Josh Brillante seemed like the clear favourite to succeed Bresciano as the Socceroos’ midfield controller after Postecoglou’s comments after the World Cup, where Postecoglou admitted that he should have selected the 21 year old in his final squad. Brillante moved to ACF Fiorentina recently and hit the ground running, showing strong form in preseason that earned him a start in La Viola’s opening match of the Serie A season away to powerhouse AS Roma. However, his debut did not go as planned and he was brought off after just 34 minutes. It remains to be seen if he can recover from such a disappointing start to his Fiorentina career, and whether Postecoglou will want to start him against Belgium with Brillante’s confidence understandably lowered.
The final potential candidate to lineup alongside Jedinak long-term is Massimo Luongo, who has enjoyed a blistering start to the season with Swindon Town. A goal and an assist in his first five matches of the new campaign are solid rewards for his fine performances with The Robins so far. Luongo’s confidence seems to have been boosted by his inclusion in the World Cup squad, despite failing to get on the field. He played 53 times last season for Swindon, scoring six goals and assisting five, and he will hope for another successful campaign. The range and accuracy of his passing is something that the Socceroos sorely lack in the middle of the park and he can be a big player for Australia in the years to come.