PIM Verbeek will finally lift the lid on Australia’s initial World Cup squad early next week.
It is an unenvious job for the Dutchman in one of his last tasks as Australia’s manager.
Predecessor Guus Hiddink had it easy this time four years ago. ‘Aussie’ Guus had a team in form, underrated by its opponents and bereft of expectations.
Australian fans were simply delighted their side had finally made it to the big dance after years of missing out on an invite.
The round of 16 appearance – and agonising loss to Italy – was as unexpected as it was celebrated.
This time around, Verbeek carries expectation of a hopeful nation around his neck like a millstone.
His job is not made easy by several issues prevalent in his squad surrounding fitness, age, form and playing time. Many believe getting out of a group featuring Germany, Serbia and Ghana cannot be done.
Verbeek will announce a squad of 27 next Tuesday, which will eventually be whittled down to 23 for South Africa.
Verbeek – who will vacate the post after the tournament – should have a fair idea of his list already.
If he doesn’t, Mrs Verbeek better put the coffee pot on. Her husband is set for some sleepless nights.
In safe hands: Goalkeeping is the only area where the Socceroos appear truly comfortable.
Mark Schwarzer, 37, will most likely be wheeled out of the area when he finally gives up his grip on the No.1 jersey.
The veteran has the full support of Verbeek, as evidenced by his selection in the his manager’s World XI last month. It’s a stark contrast to 2006, when Hiddink’s inexplicable decision to replace Schwarzer with Zeljko Kalac against Croatia nearly cost the Socceroos a round of 16 place.
Schwarzer has handled a UEFA Cup run and a full English Premier League season with Fulham with aplomb.
Even the growing maturity of Reading’s Adam Federici – rumoured to be a target of Italy – can’t shake Schwarzer’s unbreakable hold on No.1. The third keeper to travel to South Africa will come from Middlesborough’s Brad Jones, Adelaide United shot-stopper Eugene Galekovic or 2006 member Ante Covic.
The case for the defence: Just who Verbeek will send out to man the trenches against Germany on June 13 has lately become the key issue for the Socceroos.
Lucas Neill, although not blessed with pace, has a mortgage on a central defence role.
The ever-dependable Luke Wilkshire will likely take the right-back slot, with Scott Chipperfield to be selected on the left despite his goalscoring heroics for Basel as an attacking winger.
But who will stand alongside Neill?
The creaky Craig Moore is clubless, Jade North and Matt Spiranovic can’t get off the pine in Norway and Japan respectively while Simon Colosimo is hoping some reserve-team action with AZ Alkmaar will be enough to get him the nod. Youngsters Rhys Williams and Shane Lowry are surely too raw. Mark Milligan is at least seeing action in Japan’s second division, but the dearth has Verbeek considering uncapped Eddy Bosnar for a shock call-up.
No wonder the clamour for Korea-based Sasa Ognenovski – who was almost capped by Macedonia – is growing.
Stuck in the middle: Many of the names at Verbeek’s disposal in the middle of the park will be familiar to football fans who haven’t sighted Australia since 2006.
Tim Cahill, Jason Culina, Vince Grella, Mark Bresciano, Brett Emerton and Harry Kewell will again carry their country’s hopes.
Everton’s Cahill is in superb club form, while should the others be fit the Socceroos will look good on paper.
But in a recent chat with John van’t Schip (manager of Melbourne’s newest A-League club and a member of Holland’s 1974 squad), the Dutchman said he believed that Australia’s reliance on the heroes of Germany could go two ways; either the players will be better for the experience of 2006 or their side will rue the lack of fresh replacements coming through.
van’t Schip has a point.
Brett Holman, Carl Valeri and Mile Jedinak appear the most likely of ‘generation next’ to get a ticket to South Africa, but all three are more industrious than they are creators.
English-based duo Richard Garcia and Nick Carle and Perth’s Mile Sterjovski can do the latter, but all three are considered outsiders to make the cut.
Teenage left-winger Tommy Oar wowed ‘em on debut against Indonesia in March, but the diminutive trickster would find Nemanja Vidic and Per Mertesacker far more intimidating than the 137th-ranked Asian minnows.
Forward thinking: Mark Viduka’s unavailability (well, he hasn’t confirmed he has actually retired, has he?) has left a gaping hole in Australia’s attack.
Nagoya’s Joshua Kennedy has battled valiantly after being handed the striking mantle in Verbeek’s formation, but possesses neither the touch nor the ability of his predecessor to bring other players into the game. Worryingly, his inclusion in the starting can sometimes trigger a Peter Crouch reaction England fans would identify with, when teammates further afield resort to long balls for the 194cm beanpole to chase.
Scott McDonald has seldom had trouble scoring at club level in some seasons, but he has found it difficult to make a mark in Verbeek’s rigid formation and is still to break his duck at international level.
Kewell is likely to spend time forward, having regained his touch in front of goal earlier this season for Galatasaray.
Supporting roles could be played by the versatile Dario Vidosic, the speedy Nikita Rukavytsya or re-born Sydney attacker Alex Brosque.
Joel Griffiths has been banging them in for Beijing, but the 30-year-old’s penchant for letting his mouth clock up as many miles as his legs appears to have scuppered his chances.
Potential 27-man squad: Mark Schwarzer (GK), Adam Federici (GK), Brad Jones (GK), Craig Moore, Lucas Neill, Scott Chipperfield, Luke Wilkshire, Rhys Williams, Mark Milligan, Simon Colosimo, David Carney, Jade North, Jason Culina, Brett Emerton, Harry Kewell, Brett Holman, Vince Grella, Mark Bresciano, Tim Cahill, Mile Jedinak, Nick Carle, Tommy Oar, Carl Valeri, Dario Vidosic, Joshua Kennedy, Scott McDonald, Nikita Rukavytsya.