Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Saint Guus, Part 5

So much for the playoff. What of the World Cup?

Hiddink, I felt, got things wrong against Japan initially, marshalled his forces superbly well against Brazil, did similarly well against Croatia despite the ill-starred choice of Kalac, and finally failed to take his chance against the Italians.

If the eleven chosen for the opening game against Japan had many of us in Kaiserslautern scratching our heads, the eventual deployment of the troops on the pitch caused even more confusion. Brett Emerton in the centre with Luke Wilkshire at right wing-back; Jason Culina on the left side with Harry Kewell just in behind Viduka, a use of Kewell for which Frank Farina had often been criticised.

Martin Tyler commented to me a few days after the game that "some coaches like to fit their best players in, somehow or other; Hiddink prefers to use players who know his system, and can fit within it." Fair enough. The need for flexibility again, especially if a substitution is necessary. But Australia, despite their fitness and determination, looked like a Ferrari in third gear during the first half. Wilkshire and Culina made no inroads down the flanks at all, and Wilkshire allowed his opposite man, Japan's left-back Alex, to cut inside him and bring the ball to the edge of the penalty area on more than one occasion.

The obvious move would surely have been to switch Wilkshire and Emerton, but it didn't happen.

In the second half, Hiddink showed his mettle and then some. Australia's sharpness began to return with the arrival of Cahill, and Japan's counterattacks plainly lacked punch. Two more strikers arrived, replacing a defender and a midfielder, and still Japan could make nothing of their breakaways. Hiddink's shrewd judgement that the Japanese final balls would pose little danger, even with the defence so undermanned, paid off. A final flurry saw Australia go top of the group.

It was a much-altered Australian eleven who faced Brazil. Brett Emerton and Scott Chipperfield now filled the wing-back roles, but they had clearly been detailed to follow Brazil's nominal wide midfield men, Ronaldinho and Kaka, infield whenever necessary. Chipperfield, in particular, allowed the dangerous Kaka the minimum of time on the ball, with the result that the service to the Brazilian strikers was poor in the opening 45 minutes.

The Australians were swift in the tackle, neat in their passing and intelligent in their off-the-ball movement; only up front did they appear blunt. With the game barely half an hour old, Hiddink took steps to rectify this by sacrificing Tony Popovic for the attack-minded Bresciano.

How many coaches in world football would have the chutzpah to bring on an attacking midfielder for a central defender in the first half of a World Cup match against Brazil?

Sadly for Hiddink and his team, referee Markus Merk, perhaps overly influenced by articles such as this, appeared determined to add "tackle on Brazilians" to the "tackle from behind" on FIFA's no-no list.

Brazil snatched a goal at the start of the second half, and despite many vigorous attacks from the Socceroos thereafter, some adroit defending from Ze Roberto and some poor finishing allowed Brazil to maintain their lead. With the arrival of Robinho, given much time and space on the right thanks to the upfield excursions of Chipperfield, Brazil finally looked like scoring again, and did so a minute from the close. But it was the most unconvincing of victories.

Next: Croatia and Italy.

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