Despite a tumultuous lead up to their final must-win group match – there were rumours of in-fighting, questions asked of the manager, and a mauling in the press back home – the team were able to hold on and secure a one-goal victory over Serbia. (You thought I was talking about the Poms, didn't you?)
Unfortunately for the Sheilaroos, four points was not enough to escape from Group D, as was the case in 2006. The side contains a lot of the names that were part of that amazing World Cup in Germany four years ago, however many of those players are four years older are also past their prime, and for others, their replacements were simply not in the same league. And as for the manager...
Those that criticise Roberto Mancini's "defensive" style of play should consider themselves lucky that they don't support a team managed by Pim Verbeek. Whilst he did well to lead to South Korea to third place in the 2007 Asian Cup – further examination reveals that they hardly set the world alight. Indeed, after scraping through the group stage, the side registered consecutive 0-0 draws in the quarter final, semi final, and third-place playoff, each match going to a penalty shootout. So not only had the Korean defence manage to hold out their opposition for over 6 hours of football – they weren't able to score either.
Australia were the amongst the first teams to secure qualification for South Africa, just behind the Netherlands and on the same date as Japan. However, the style in which they did it left a lot to be desired. Many matches were dour, drab affairs, with the defensively-minded Verbeek exclusively opting to play 4-5-1, even against the minnows of Asian football. Apart from a couple of big defeats over Qatar, that helped to boost the goal difference, the team looked very, very ordinary in attack. But, you only need one goal to win, and that was enough on most occasions – even if the manager earned the name "Verbleak" as a result of his tactical outlook. Flair players or goal scorers such as Nicky Carle and Scott McDonald were left off the plane, and the squad was stacked with midfielders. Australia's 23-man squad contained as many goalkeepers as it did strikers – and even then one of those (Kewell) is generally considered to be a left-winger.
It may have not been the prettiest formation, but it was our best one. Inexplicably before the first match against Germany, Pim reverted to a more attacking 4-4-2, although that was with attacking midfielder Tim Cahill partnering Richard Garcia (yet another midfielder) up front. Lucas Neill and Craig Moore were selected in central defence – both of whom possessed the sheer pace of Didi Hamann in full-flight and the turning circle of the Pasha Bulker. Predictably, the Sheilaroos were torn to shreds, and the cause was not helped by a red to Tim Cahill.
The second match against Ghana was a much more positive affair, as the Aussies returned to a formation in which they were much more familiar with. However, this was short-lived when Harry Kewell was sent-off for handball on the line in the 23rd minute – the second debatable red in as many matches for the Socceroos. Unlike the previous encounter against the Germans, the side were able to rally and hold on for the draw.
This meant that Australia would go in to the final match against Serbia requiring a miracle. They would first have to defeat a Serb side containing such class as Krasnic, Vidic, and Stankovic, and then hope for a result the either way – either a Ghanaian win, or a Germany victory big enough to overcome the massive goal difference.
And by jingo, they almost did it. Late goals to Tim Cahill and the much-maligned Brett Holman, combined with the 1-0 lead Germany had opened at the time, meant that the Socceroos were just two goals either way from qualification with twenty minutes still to play. It was not to be however as Ghana undeservedly qualified on the back of two penalty goals, both of which on the account of handball by the opposition.
It was still one of the best performances I've seen by the National team in quite some time. Despite crashing out early, the boys showed that Aussie spirit that they are known for, and that was so lacking in the clash against Germany. I suppose that's one thing that separates the Australian fans from the English – I find it extremely difficult to understand those people that are not just are nonchalant towards the National team... but to go far as to actively support the opposition! Although if the Socceroos featured such Grade-A wankers as Rooney, Cole, Terry, and Ferdinand, I'd find it difficult too...
In the aftermath, some members of the squad have already announced their desire to continue to Brazil in 2014. Cahill predictably confirmed he'd be there, so did Harry Kewell; although by then his groin would be held together with a bit of chewy...
So thanks to the Sheilaroos for another unforgettable World Cup, and hopefully we can make the Second Round (or better) in Brazil.