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Socceroos' bizarre Jekyll and Hyde failure

Matt Spiranovic of Australia battles with Enner Valencia of Ecuador.

Matt Spiranovic of Australia battles with Enner Valencia of Ecuador. Photo: Getty Images

Talk about a game of two halves. Australia looked calm, confident and completely in control after a dominant first half in which they raced to a 3-0 lead in their friendly against Ecuador in London in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Tim Cahill of Australia celebrates a goal in the first half.

Tim Cahill of Australia celebrates a goal in the first half. Photo: Getty Images

But a bizarre second half, which saw Australia’s substitute goalkeeper Mitch Langerak sent off a quarter of an hour after he replaced Mat Ryan, and four second half Ecuador goals saw Ange Postecoglou’s team crash to a remarkable 4-3 defeat.

After such an easy first half when his side ran rampant, Postecoglou could have been forgiven for hoping that his team were given a little bit more of a workout in the second period.

But surely he would not have wanted such a searching examination in such difficult circumstances, one which his team eventually failed.

Ecaudor produced such a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance here that it is tempting to think they were employing a rope-a-dope style, trying to lure Australia into a false sense of security in a first half in which they looked nothing like a team that had qualified for the World Cup.

Mind you, Australia themselves did a passable impersonation of the Robert Louis Stevenson character, producing a second half as abject as their first half was excellent.

We all knew that Ecuador were poor away from the altitude of Quito, where they took 22 of the 25 points which secured their World Cup competition. That record would suggest they are the footballing equivalent of the prep school kid who turns to water on the way to school as soon as he cannot see the comforting surrounds of his own front door when he looks behind.

In that second 45 minutes in south east London this morning a team psychologist must have convinced them that they were back home in Quito, so well did they turn things around.

Australia, it must be said, looked fantastic in a first half in which their youthful line up pressed in all areas of the pitch and played with pace, verve and passion. It was hardly surprising that they raced to such a comfortable lead against such lacklustre opposition.

But it all fell apart in the second period following Langerak’s early dismissal. A revamped Ecuador line up - bolstered by tactical half-time substitutions of its own - ramped up the pressure. In truth the South Americans should really have won by more, given that they also hit the woodwork.

Amidst all the clamour for youth in the Socceroos set-up its important not to forget that any successful team needs a core of experienced players.

Postecoglou will have learned plenty from this and can return to Melbourne knowing much more about the character, ability and mindset of his players in both comfortable and confronting circumstances.

The two new centre backs, Matt Spiranovic and Curtis Good, looked excellent when they were not under any pressure, less assured when the game caught fire.

Lucas Neill, if he can force his way into the Watford team, may still feel as if he can add some stability at the back in Brazil.

The way Australia crumbled under this pressure is a massive concern, given that Chile, Spain and Holland would be fancied to see off Ecuador quite comfortably.

The big lesson learned in the second half is the importance of ball retention, structure and discipline. Yes, Australia was a man down, but too often the South Americans were able to break, find space and get in behind the defence far too easily to produce cut-backs and scoring chances aplenty.

Still, there were plenty of positives from that first 45 minutes when the evergreen Tim Cahill, along with a handful of experienced campaigners in new captain Mile Jedinak and Mark Milligan, showed the way to a team that was high on enthusiasm, commitment and work rate but, before this game anyway, lacking in big game know-how.

Cahill has been Australia’s saviour so often and for such a long time that it is hard to find new ways to stress his importance, either as a starter or off the bench, for his country.

And so it was just, and highly appropriate, that he established a new benchmark as Australia’s record goalscorer in this game, his two first half headers taking him to 31 goals in the green and gold, finally surpassing Damian Mori’s total.

That Cahill, these days domiciled in New York where he struts his stuff for the Red Bulls in the MLS, began his glittering career in the far more humble surroundings of Millwall’s Den and set the new scoring record for his country at that same venue was just one of those wonderful synergies that sport can sometimes produce.

The former Everton man’s ability in the air is uncanny: it is as if he has the ability to levitate, on one of those theatrical devices that allow actors to give the impression that they are flying. Not that he needed such elevation for his two goals this time, the first set up by a clever Milligan header which he leant into and powered home, the second a brave diving lunge from a Tommy Oar cross.

In some ways the second half performance will have taught the coach as much, if not more, than the first half.

Mitch Langerak’s rush of blood to the head put his team on the back foot. His challenge was ludicrous and, if nothing else, it will have cemented Ryan’s status as Postecoglou’s first choice for the forseeable future.

Postecoglou stuck to his guns and made his rotations, as he had to. What better environment than to test the mettle of young players than this, so the likes of Massimo Luongo came on and Oliver Bozanic got some minutes to show what he can do.

It's hard to know what to make of such a game, other than to say it was a hugely entertaining spectacle.

For Postecoglou huge issues remain.

It's all very well trying to play out from the back, but you have to have players who can move the ball quickly and keep control of it when under pressure: they could do so in the first half, because Ecuador didn’t turn up. They couldn’t in the second, because their mindset changed.

The lesson from this second half is clear.

Australia has to tighten up at the back and retain concentration for every second of every game. It has to be disciplined, structured and committed. And, against the likes of Spain, it is also going to have to be lucky. Very lucky.

37 comments

  • Is that comment about Lucas Neill a joke. Please go to your archives and retrieve the tapes for the Socceroos V Brazil and Socceroos V France. Both those games were well on 'fire" and one of our greatest players was despite all his EXPERIENCE found wanting. That ship has sailed surely.

    Commenter
    Smithers
    Date and time
    March 06, 2014, 10:09AM
    • Pretty much sums up Australian soccer in general.
      They try and convice us that it's the way of the future, all bright and shiny and new, but at the end of the day, it's just the same old dross.

      Commenter
      td
      Date and time
      March 06, 2014, 10:10AM
      • And you watched this Dros for the full 90 minutes td? As the first half we were dominating them all over the park. Lee Probert had an opportunity to give Cahill two more pens for holding but gave a free kick against him for ironically holding? Cahill Leckie and Oar at the top with Davidson and Franjic bombing up the wings with support from Milligan and Jedi....that is a team that will be there for 2018 and is a team that can do damage. Not at this world cup, but Asian Cup and into the future. Spiranovic and Goode did well. Bye Bye Luca$h Neil. Matt Ryan was good as usual.

        The way Ange set the lads up to play out form the back and short passing with an emphasis on the entire team breaking down space was great to see (in the first half) down to ten men, Ecuador would have had a foot up their behinds at the half time break and they played like a team that drew with Argentina. Just remember td, this is a team that qualified in the hardest of all regions. To the non football statements in here, not shocked and bored by them. You must be employed by the NRL and AFL to come on here, why would you even bother making a comment if you didnt care about the code.

        Commenter
        The Oz_scouser
        Location
        Brissie
        Date and time
        March 06, 2014, 3:04PM
    • I think that game set the tone for our World Cup squad with many selected bound to be on the plane to Brazil. I imagine a few of the old heads will pretty much make up the rest.

      A decent preparation period and not having to play players who have just stepped off a 24hr flight will make a difference. Milligan for example played in China, then Melbourne (in a derby) and then London all with just under a fortnight. Add to this that Spiranovic was playing in Sydney on late Sunday afternoon and you can expect lapses of concentration. The same said of Rogic, with more game time, he won't fade out of the game so quickly.

      One positive was the fact that Ange, even when we were under the cosh bought on the younger and some untested players when he could have bought on someone like Wilkshere when Franjic started getting skinned on the right.

      Commenter
      nicholas
      Date and time
      March 06, 2014, 10:11AM
      • Love it!
        The Socceroos are such a constant disappointment despite all the hype from the the powers that be..
        It may be the 'world game' but in this country soccer is lucky to rate 5th behind the other 3 football codes, cricket and even netball.
        Seems like the only thing that will keep the game in the news is the behaviour of its fans.
        At least in that case there is more action in the stands than on the ground.

        Commenter
        Nick
        Date and time
        March 06, 2014, 12:20PM
        • Nick. I prefer, AFL however I think it's rude to blog here and bag our National Soccer team. I will support them in the World Cup campaign and wish them well. Who cares what code is more popular in Aus. What matters to me is our youth have a good selection of sports to choose from. Though they reacted to AFL creating GWS. The A leagues creation of the Wanderers has proven a great success. Picking up supporters of many nationalities who suddenly come together to support a team, playing a sport they know well from their home countries. I have taken interest in the Aus Coach Ange, have seen him on TV heard him on radio. The man is a very good leader who actually takes genuine interest in AFL, NRL, I dare say any sports and he likes to learn from them. As do AFL Coaches like to learn from NRL and Soccer. All Aussies should stand behind any National team regardless if you like the sport or not. Go Socceroos.

          Commenter
          Sports lover
          Date and time
          March 06, 2014, 1:42PM
        • Out of four football codes we only have two international representative teams so, regardless of how we're playing (and remember we're in with the top 32 teams in the world), I think people like to know what they're up to and support their country. Considering where we've come from as a footballing nation we're doing pretty bloody well and we'll only get better.

          Luckily most people in this country have enough brain capacity to enjoy more than one sport. I'm a supporter of the Raiders, Brumbies, Bombers and good old Sydney FC.

          In terms of poor fan (and player) behaviour, football has a long way to go before it catches up to NRL.

          Commenter
          Meat Cat
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          March 06, 2014, 2:27PM
        • Except in junior competition where it is second only in participation rates to Netball.

          Commenter
          Bloke
          Date and time
          March 06, 2014, 3:35PM
        • I love it when the Anti football bods finds it necessary to spend their precious time to put down a game that they supposedly don't care about. I don't write on AFL, Thugby Leagues stories because I could not care less about the them. Yep sure is the world game, AFL and RL are not in the news because a sports journalist will not find a story to write if they tried outside of Australia.

          Commenter
          oz
          Location
          upyaville
          Date and time
          March 06, 2014, 5:15PM
        • Are you saying that football fans are rich? if you are I agree with you, rich in culture, money ,intelligence and world markets.....Can't say the same about the NRL and AFL hybrids.

          Commenter
          oz
          Location
          upyaville
          Date and time
          March 06, 2014, 7:14PM

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