March 6, 2014
SENIOR SPORTS REPORTER WITH THE AGE
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.
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.
Matt Spiranovic of Australia battles with Enner Valencia of Ecuador. Photo: Getty Images
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.
Tim Cahill of Australia celebrates a goal in the first half. Photo: Getty Images
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.
Read more:The Sydnet Morning Herald