Australia’s Asian Cup campaign begins in 319 days with a game at AAMI Park in Melbourne, but in reality it begins the moment coach Ange Postecoglou selects his squad for the friendly with Ecuador on March 5th. This friendly will be the last chance for fringe players to impress Postecoglou and put forward their case for a ticket to the World Cup in Brazil later this year.
The majority of the squad we take to the World Cup will also participate in the Asian Cup in January next year, with less than seven months between the opening fixtures of each tournament. This means Postecoglou has a delicate balancing act between the need to incorporate younger players and the desire for respectable results.
But are the two mutually exclusive? Does blooding younger players as part of a squad necessarily mean a dip in performance? It could be argued that taking the younger, less proven stars of the future can only be of benefit in the long term.
Footballers benefit from being around experienced players, but too many senior players means a lack of pace and energy on the pitch, as well as that hunger that invariably comes with a young player on the rise. There have also been suggestions of player egos having a negative effect in the dressing room, and that is something that if present, needs to be eliminated.
Is there a real benefit of taking a squad with a large number of 30-somethings? Yes, experience will help when facing the world class talent that the likes of Chile, the Netherlands and Spain possess. But experience on its own is not enough if a player has lost too much pace or can’t last more than 60 minutes.
Whilst there are sure to be spots at the World Cup and probably the Asian Cup for senior players such as Tim Cahill and Joshua Kennedy, Postecoglou has some tough calls to make regarding other aging players. Sasa Ognenovski and Lucas Neill are players who fall into this category and their presence in Brazil would likely be at the expense of talented defenders Curtis Good, Trent Sainsbury and Tomislav Mrčela.
Neill who hasn’t been able to find a club will be struggling to make it to Brazil, much less be starting in the centre of defence. In fact, it’s believed he won’t be used against Ecuador. Game time and form will be a factor in selection, as Postecoglou stated in January.
“My message to all prospective players is that wherever they are playing they will be in with a chance if they are playing regularly and well,” the Socceroos boss said.
“That can be in the Middle East too, as long as they are playing well.
“My priority is to pick players who are in form and in peak physical condition.”
Despite the Achilles injury to Rhys Williams there are still options in defence for Postecoglou which could benefit the Socceroos in the long term.
The friendly against Ecuador is likely to be missing Sainsbury due to the injury sustained when he landed on a sprinkler in the game against FC Utrecht. However he may have just pulled off a masterstroke regarding the timing of his move abroad which will definitely keep him in contention for Brazil. Playing at a higher level and in a more technical league will provide Sainsbury with the experience he needs to maximise his potential. At 22, he still has plenty of time to fulfil his huge potential.
Another player who has moved clubs, albeit only on loan, is the aforementioned Good. The left footed defender has moved to Dundee United in the Scottish Premier League and has already made three appearances, even grabbing a goal to boot. The 20-year-old has played the full 90 minutes in each of those games and is sure to benefit from regular first team football.
The likes of Tomislav Mrčela have also been touted as potential Socceroos. The 23-year-old has been in terrific form this season in the Croatian top flight and could be called up for the Ecuador game. The physically imposing centre back has been scouted by Turkish and Italian clubs this season while playing for his current side Hrvatski Dragovoljac. The fact that Mrčela is on Postecoglou’s radar bodes well for the future.
Up front there’s a need for an injection of youthful exuberance and two players who could feature at the World and Asian Cups are James Troisi and Adam Taggart, who have both shown their ability to find the back of the net this season.
Although 25, Troisi has experienced a stop-start career which means his decision making still has room for growth, and could match his technical ability. Versatile and with an eye for goal, Troisi has found the back of the net nine times so far this season for Melbourne Victory. The left footed striker is unlikely to be showcasing his talent in the A-League next season as a return to European football beckons.
Whilst Taggart is not the most technically gifted of players, the 20-year-old has an impressive scoring record this season. His tally of nine goals so far for an inconsistent Newcastle Jets side has put him firmly in the race for the golden boot alongside Troisi. He has a knack for the spectacular, whether it’s a classy chip or a thunderbolt from outside the penalty area.
The ambition for the FFA is to win the Asian Cup, and this can’t be achieved if we don’t give our budding players the experience they need between now and then. Postecoglou cannot afford to fail with the Asian Cup on home soil, especially considering FFA Chairman Frank Lowy’s statement at his unveiling as Socceroos coach, “This job is for winners.”
Although the saying goes ‘there is a long time in football’, these 319 days will disappear very quickly for Postecoglou and his staff. There is no time to waste and our exciting youngsters need to be given their chance. It’s their time. The future is now.