Saturday, July 15, 2006


Saint Guus, Part 6

In the crucial group decider against Croatia, Hiddink made perhaps his most controversial selection choice of the event: Zeljko Kalac replaced Mark Schwarzer in goal.

Many of those who had routinely hailed Guus as a genius prior to the match in Stuttgart were doing swift 180-degree turns on 56 minutes, when Kalac blundered horribly to give Croatia a 2-1 lead. When quizzed about his goalkeeping switch at the post-match press conference, Hiddink's reponses were, for once, awkward and almost truculent.

There was some, albeit not much, justification for the choice. Although Schwarzer had played magnificently against Holland in Australia's most high-profile pre-tournament friendly, his misjudgement of Shunsuke Nakamura's gentle cross in the first game could have cost Australia dearly. Against Brazil, it was hard to fault his efforts. However, Hiddink perhaps felt he could have taken greater command of his area, particularly in the latter stages of the game, when Australia's defenders were rushing upfield leaving Schwarzer to double as sweeper at times.

The fact is, however, that Kalac's pre-World Cup performances gave no cause for confidence whatsoever. Jittery in his handling against Greece and uncertain against Liechtenstein, he appeared to have put himself out of the running for the tournament proper. He also made few friends among the fans with his ill-considered comments regarding Schwarzer's club form just prior to the event.

It was an error of judgement on Hiddink's part. But it could readily be forgiven, not just in view of Australia's progression to the group stage, but also because Hiddink again proved shrewd and courageous in a critical game. He started Kewell, figuring that crunch games brought out the best in players who badly needed to prove themselves. Smart move number one.

He surprisingly sacrificed Vince Grella, Australia's only purely defensively-minded midfielder, for John Aloisi after 63 minutes. Again, there was solid logic behind the decision: Niko Kranjcar, Croatia's supposed playmaker, was having a joyless night, looking short of fitness and ideas. There was no longer any need for a Grella to keep an eye on him.

And finally, as against Japan, he was not afraid to leave his defence undermanned. It was Scott Chipperfield who made way for the third striker, Kennedy; Brett Emerton's defensive duties multiplied as a result, but he coped admirably (before his moment of foolishness). Again, the flexibility of the Australian side under Hiddink was impressively apparent.

Australia, deservedly, got through. Then, there was Italy.

In retrospect, holding the eventual champions over ninety minutes appears an outstanding achievement for such an unheralded side. But Italy had yet to truly blossom - in fact, they had been unrecognisably poor in their last two group matches - and after Marco Materazzi's send-off, the game was there for the taking.

Oddly enough, Hiddink, the bravest coach at the event, failed to make the changes that might have allowed Australia to snatch victory against an undermanned side.

There are a couple of interesting parallels in World Cup history to Hiddink's unexpected freeze.

In 1986, the first Africans to reach the second round, Morocco, were looking good against a nervous, unpopular West German team in a second round game. The sultry conditions in Mexico were, not surprisingly, more congenial to the North Africans than the Europeans. As the game went on, the Moroccans would surely come into the ascendancy. Yet the Germans avoided the necessity of extra time: Lothar Matthaus smashed in a free kick on 88 minutes.

After the game, Morocco's manager protested that he'd intended to bring substitutes on, to rejuvenate the team, in extra time.

A similar story in 1994. This time, it was the host nation, the USA, with a huge upset within reach; their second-round opponents, Brazil, had had a man sent off just before half-time. The score was still 0-0. Forty-five minutes of football to play, against a World Cup aristocrat reduced to ten men. Sound familiar?

The USA's coach Bora Milutinovic, however, took few risks in the second half, perhaps hoping to hold the Brazilians until extra time, and pick them off then. Again, it didn't work; Bebeto scored the winner seventeen minutes from the end.

It was the same story for Australia against Italy. Materazzi's exit provided the perfect opportunity for Australia to deploy the Aloisi-Viduka combination which had looked so dangerous in recent times, without compromising Australia's defence unduly.

Aloisi did finally arrive. His impact was palpable. And had Italy not scored, Australia may well have gone on to dominate extra time, even score, despite Italy's defensive resilience. But it was a late, late move...Hiddink was clearly thinking primarily of extra time. As had already occurred, in fact, against Uruguay in Sydney.

Whatever your opinions of the penalty which gave Italy victory, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Australia failed to take the initiative early in the second half, when they had ample opportunity to do so. Luke Wilkshire, never altogether confident coming forward, found himself pitifully short of employment in the second half. It was perhaps he, rather than Mile Sterjovski, who should have been sacrificed for John Aloisi; with Sterjovski's departure from the right flank, Fabio Grosso was able to get forward occasionally...with the well-known result.

To some in Australian football, Guus Hiddink is already a saint.

To me, the impression that is left is of a decent, engaging man, and a clever, meticulous, forward-thinking coach who oversaw a sharp improvement in the national team. In the end, one or two small misjudgements might have cost him the extraordinary achievement of taking three different teams to the World Cup semi-finals.

Australian football has much to thank him for, and we will continue to follow his career with great interest.

A lot of people are saying that we were too conservative in the second half. That may be true. My recollection is that the Italians started pushing forward in the last 10 minutes and I thought at the time that we needed to pull every man back and wait it out for extra time.

That was a game that we clearly should have won but I think we let ourselves down by being naive yet again.

Isn't funny how the villains in our game - Materazzi and Grosso - played such major roles in the final ?
I think one thing was that we didn't really react to the introduction of Totti. Italy certainly looked more likely to make something happen when he arrived.

Yeah, funny about Materazzi and Grosso. Grosso in particular was such a pivotal figure for them in the knockout stages - (non-)penalty against us, opening goal against the Germans, and then the winning penalty in the final.

Thanks for the comment!
One more reason I heard for using Kalac against Croatia was that he could understand what the Croats were saying to each-other. But I presume he would have picked up enough Italian at Milan, so maybe not ;-)

Schwarzer pulled off a spectacular save against Italy, where he somehow parried a close-range shot with his toe after he was already diving the other way. Also, having just watched on SBS extended highlights of all the Socceroos games, Buffon made a great save against a Bresciano angled overhead kick, which would have been one of the goals of the tournament if it had gone in.

Ah, what could have been..
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