BURNING QUESTIONS FOR 2013: Can the Socceroos survive the road to Rio or will Father Time finally catch up with them?
Seven years on from Germany, Lucas Neill remains one of the lynchpins for the Socceroos
Photo: Getty Images
After the comparative doddle that was Australia's progress to the World Cup final in 2010 under Pim Verbeek, it seems absurd that we must even consider the prospect that the Socceroos could be spectators in Brazil next year.
But although this team still contains several of the heroes from 2006, and even more of Verbeek's squad that travelled to South Africa, the circumstances they face are very different.
Seven years after the heroics of Kaiserslautern, Lucas Neill, Mark Schwarzer, Luke Wilkshire, Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano remain the linchpins of the side. It is a sorry reflection of the failure of Australian football to develop replacements for that quintet. Until recently, the attack was still being carried by Archie Thompson, Harry Kewell and Josh Kennedy - all of whom are now on the wrong side of 30 and were also part of Guus Hiddink's World Cup squad in 2006.
Since Germany so devastatingly exposed the ageing Socceroos' deficiencies in South Africa, only midfielder Brett Holman and forwards Robbie Kruse and Alex Brosque have established themselves as first-choice members of the squad. And even then, the attack can look very one-dimensional in Josh Kennedy's frequent absences.
The defence still looks porous, particularly down the left, while the holding midfield positions occupied variously by Mile Jedinak, Carl Valeri and Matt McKay tend to look rather ponderous without the creative influence of Bresciano.
The likes of Nikita Rukavytsya, Tommy Oar and Adam Sarota - all ranked among Australia's brightest hopes when they departed the A-League years ago to pursue careers in Europe - have largely stalled. Only Kruse, who has forged a good career in Germany, has prospered from his move abroad.
Put simply, the Socceroos still rely far too heavily on Cahill and Bresciano for their attacking bite, while they desperately need a good winger or two to emerge, along with a decent left back to compensate for David Carney's battles with form.
But don't be fooled into thinking the young Socceroos' failure to thrive is the only problem.
Millions of dollars has been poured into Asian football over the past decade and the smaller nations are now reaping the rewards. The Middle East nations, led by Qatar, have imported coaches and players by the droves to boost the standard of their domestic football and the quality of their national teams has risen accordingly.
Oman, who are currently coached by a one-time hopeful for the Australian job, Paul Le Guen, are a far more robust proposition than they were five years ago, while Jordan's 2-1 win in Amman is testament to their improvement. And that leaves out the stunning technical development in Japan, which is producing world-class players seemingly on demand. The Blue Samurai are currently streets ahead of their rivals in Asia and for good reason. Their 6-0 hammering of Jordan last June was attacking football at its best.
With all this in mind, the equation for the Socceroos is simple - win three of their four remaining qualifying matches against Jordan, Oman and Iraq and they will have booked their ticket to Rio, along with the powerhouse Blue Samurai. If they can manage a point - or even better, all three - against Japan in June, qualification will be almost assured.
However, a single slip-up in any of those home fixtures against their more lowly ranked opponents could make life decidedly difficult for Holger Osieck and his men.
While all three nations have the ability to shock the Socceroos, it is Oman who loom as the most dangerous. The Socceroos have played one fewer game than the rest of their Group B rivals but Oman are the only side to have played group leaders Japan twice. Moreover, the Omanis have taken four points from the past two clashes with Australia - admittedly, both were in Muscat - and they will not fear their better-credentialled foes.
Should Australia fail to defeat Oman in Sydney in March, it will pile the pressure on the remaining two home games against Jordan and Iraq.
The best case scenario for the Socceroos is two wins in their first two matches of the 2013 schedule. Victories over Oman and Japan would give Osieck some desperately needed breathing room and allow him to continue blooding new players at the top level.
There is only certainty about Australia's road to Rio. If we do qualify, rocking up to the World Cup finals with the same starting XI that was outclassed in South Africa is a one-way ticket to a second successive disappointment.
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
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