Alex Wilkinson: Socceroos belong at this level
Socceroo defender Alex Wilkinson says the next game against Netherlands is "going to be tough", while first-choice right back Ivan Franjic admits his World Cup is over.PT2M17S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-3a6lh 620 349 June 16, 2014
Alex Wilkinson could fairly be described as the accidental Socceroo, although some, less kindly, have suggested the closest parallel for the former Central Coast Mariners defender and his rapid rise to the Australian starting XI is with Steven Bradbury, the fluke gold medallist at the Winter Olympics.
Bradbury won when everyone in his speed skating race fell over, and there is an element of comparison with the well spoken Wilkinson, who has kept his fitness, form and head while others around him have fallen foul to injury.
Alex Wilkinson stops an otherwise certain Chile goal Photo: Reuters
It's likely that if Rhys Williams or Curtis Good had been fit enough to make the World Cup 23 then Wilkinson might not even have been in it himself.
But he is, and, much to the surprise of many, himself included, he is now one of Ange Postecoglou's two first-choice centre backs.
It's a remarkable rise, and while Wilkinson admits it has taken him by surprise, he is taking it in his stride.
Yes, he says, there are nerves, an essential fuel on which every player runs, but not to the extent that they have rendered him incapable of doing himself justice. He looks calm, affable and in control, which is what you want your centre back to be as they shape up to some fearsome opposition frontmen.
And, he says, he now feels like he belongs in the World Cup squad.
''The more you play and the more you are around the team environment the more comfortable you feel.
''If you said to me maybe three weeks ago that I would be starting in a World Cup I probably wouldn't have believed you. But I definitely feel like I am belonging more. The more you play and are around the team and the more training (you do) the more comfortable you feel.
''I am excited to be here I am, enjoying every moment. A while ago I didn't think I would have even the opportunity to be here, never mind playing. I am really excited to be here and just pinching myself.''
Wilkinson certainly wasn't disgraced in that 3-1 loss to Chile, which could have been worse had he not got back in time to stop a Chilean strike from going into the net with a goal-line clearance.
''I was in the right place at the right time, I don't really remember too much about it. I was lucky enough to just get there and hook it off the line ,'' he says with disarming modesty.
Wilkinson has come a long way in a short time rather, he believes, like his team. Australia was roundly written off before the World Cup as no-hopers, but they showed in their fighting performance against the Chileans, who were lucky to hold on for a win, that they can be more than nuisance value.
Their challenge against the Dutch is huge given the confidence The Netherlands will take from their 5-1 triumph over Spain, but the centre back says as long as the team learns the lessons from that first half hour against Chile, when they allowed the South Americans to dominate, then they can be in this game too.
''The first 25-30 minutes against Chile really hurt us, whether it was nerves or inexperience. We were probably just a yard off them, we probably showed them too much respect, but once Timmy scored for us we grew an extra leg and grew in confidence.
''I think we showed in the second half we do belong at this level and we can compete. We will take a lot of confidence from the second half and the fact we created a lot of chances against a team that everyone is tipping to go pretty far in this tournament.
''It's going to be another huge challenge. the Dutch are a very very good team who will be brimming with confidence now, but we always need to raise the bar.
''We are definitely not happy with the result against Chile...it's good that we fought back and put in a second half, but we are in a result-based business and we lost 3-1.
''There are aspects of the performance that we can take out of the game that we did well and aspects we definitely need to improve on. We definitely won't be able to give them (Netherlands) a 2-0 lead like we did against Chile.''
It will, says Wilkinson, be a tactically different battle against The Netherlands in Porto Alegre.
''The Chileans were quite unpredictable, it seemed as though they played a lot off the cuff and they had runners going everywhere. I think the Dutch might be a bit more structured.
''The last 60 minutes against Chile we kept the ball quite well, we passed through the lines, we got Bresh (Mark Bresciano) on the ball, which we didn't do in the first 20, and once you get someone like that on the ball he can create.
''But the lesson learned was that we have to start better and not give as much respect or time to world class opponents. For a lot of us that was the first experience we had had against world class opponents in a pressure cooker environment and I don't know if that was why we started a bit slow. We have got to make sure it doesn't happen again.
''There were nerves, there are nerves in every game. But I didn't feel overawed. Nerves are good, it means you are on your toes and ready to go. Once you are out there you forget it, it's business as usual and its just another game.''
The example of Ivan Franjic, whose World Cup is now over through injury, weighs heavily on the entire squad.
''We are all extremely disappointed for Ivan, he's worked for four years to get where he is now, he set up that goal for Timmy,
''The boss said to us last night that you have to treat every minute of the World Cup like its your last....the lesson to learn is give it your all and treat every minute you get at a tournament like this as your last.''
He is not fazed at the prospect of taking on an inform front man like Robin van Persie.
''We have two days on the training tack to implement the way we want to play, the way we want to get at them and what their weaknesses are. We are quietly confident we can go out there and definitely cause an upset.
''Van Persie and Robben are world class, it's exciting to come up against guys like that. Their team is up there with the best in the world.
''With each team you play you have to be tactically aware, and be able to change the way you want to play. We definitely won't be playing the same way against the Dutch (as we did against Chile). At this level you have to be able to change."