By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia scraped into the World Cup after a series of far-flung playoffs and new coach Bert van Marwijk faces a huge challenge to guide the Socceroos into the knockout rounds in Russia.
The least fancied team in a Group C featuring France, Denmark and Peru, Australia needed a playoff win against Central Americans Honduras to book their ticket, after having made hard work of qualifying against lightly regarded Asian opponents.
The strain proved too much for former boss Ange Postecoglou, who quit in November, leaving Van Marwijk to pick up the pieces upon his appointment in January.
The Dutchman has World Cup pedigree, having guided the Netherlands to the 2010 final in South Africa and also steered Saudi Arabia to Russia before parting ways with the Green Falcons over contract disagreements.
The 65-year-old has targeted a spot in the last 16, which would match the Socceroos’ run at the 2006 finals in Germany, their best-ever performance at the global showpiece.
In reality, that would be a stupendous achievement for a team that lacks a single player worthy of the label ‘world class’.
The 2006 Socceroos were laden with players in Europe’s top leagues but the current crop are a shadow of the so-called ‘Golden Generation’, and toil mostly in the continent’s second-tier competitions.
Australia’s struggles to regenerate are encapsulated in the retention of Tim Cahill, who remains their biggest goal threat at the age of 38.
Cahill, who has scored at each of the last three World Cups, has had little playing time for English Championship side Millwall but, with few other options up front, Van Marwijk can ill afford to overlook him.
Despite limited weapons at hand, Van Marwijk’s predecessor Postecoglou tried to fashion a more enterprising side during his last year in charge, installing a 3-2-4-1 formation that he hoped might ultimately challenge the world’s top sides.
The experiment failed for the most part, with the Socceroos lacking polish in their forward movements and often caught out on the counter attack from a lack of pace against quality opponents.
Van Marwijk is likely to take a more pragmatic approach in Russia by stacking the defence and hoping to pinch goals on the break against their more powerful group rivals.
Lead-up form has been a worry, however.
In his first match in charge, with a more conservative 4-2-3-1 formation, the team were thrashed 4-1 away by lower-ranked Norway in March.
Days later, they held fellow World Cup qualifiers Colombia to a goalless draw in London but the South Americans wasted a number of chances.
Van Marwijk may be hoping for similar profligacy from France during the June 16 opener in Kazan to give his team a chance of surviving the group stage.
(Editing by Toby Davis)