Leaps and bounds: Melbourne Heart's Aziz Behich in action. Photo: Getty Images
HOLGER Osieck has breathed new life into the ageing Socceroos by calling up fresh faces alongside emerging talents and old established stars for Australia's clash with South Korea in a friendly in Hwaseong next week.
The most exciting names the German has included are Melbourne Heart's Aziz Behich, his former teammate Eli Babalj, who now plays for Red Star Belgrade in Serbia, and Central Coast Mariners attacking midfielder Tomas Rogic.
The challenge for Osieck now is to balance the demands of preparation for a must win World Cup qualifier in March against Oman with the need to experiment in a competitive match against serious opposition to see if the newcomers might have what it takes to progress to international level when points are at stake.
Other intriguing choices are Central Coast's goalkeeper Mathew Ryan, the former Adelaide United striker Mathew Leckie (now with second Bundesliga side FSV Frankfurt) and back from the wilderness defender Michael Thwaite, now at Perth Glory following the collapse of Gold Coast United.
Behich, Babalj and Rogic are receiving their first ever call ups while Ryan and Leckie have been involved in squads before.
So has Thwaite, the versatile defender who can play either as a centre back or on the flanks. He looked to have a huge international future when first capped in 2005, but never quite made the breakthrough.
Now as a mature 29-year-old his leadership qualities out on the field have been developed and his ability to play in so many positions gives him a real opportunity to take advantage of his second chance. With Lucas Neill now in the veteran stage, Sasa Ognenovski also ageing and Matt Spiranovic not convincing, Thwaite could stake a claim to be a contender in the final World Cup qualifiers, as he was when he first came into the squad in 2005.
Alongside them are players like Neill, Mark Schwarzer and Luke Wilkshire, the backbone of the national team for six years and more, as well as regulars like Archie Thompson and Carl Valeri, who could play his 50th game in the Korea match. Mark Bresciano has, however, been omitted, as has Tim Cahill.
Rogic has made a huge impression in a short time since coming to public attention after winning a Nike global competition to find talented players. His plans to join Premiership club Reading were frustrated by bureaucracy, so the teenager returned home to sign up with the Mariners.
He is only 19 and the world is at his feet, but Osieck yesterday made it clear he did not want too much pressure heaped on the young man. "He is a good boy, he has all the ingredients, but please don't destroy him," the coach said at a press conference in Sydney.
The call-ups for Behich and Babalj reflect well on Heart. The duo were among several young players blooded by former coach John Van 't Schip in his two years at the club. While Babalj, the gangling striker, is now in Serbia, Behich, who was converted into a left back by the Dutchman having spent the early years of his career as a striker or winger, is still a key man for the red and whites.
Yesterday he reflected on the role Van 't Schip — who offered him a lifeline with a deal in the run up to Heart's inaugural season when Behich had been discarded by Melbourne Victory — had played in his development.
"JVS was a big influence. He gave me a chance, handed me a contract and threw me out at left back in the derby game against Victory. That was the first time I had played there, but that's what a player wants, when the coach has confidence in him," Behich said.