MORE than 55,000 made it to the MCG to see off the Socceroos in style on Monday night.
The fans kept up their end of the bargain. Bar the final result, the Socceroos didn’t.
Pim Verbeek’s team – who left for South Africa on Wednesday – was fortunate to finish with a 2-1 win and without a red card or two.
It was hardly the farewell Australia and its fans wanted. Perhaps the latter were spoilt by the corresponding match four years ago against Greece, when 95,103 were witness to Josip Skoko’s sublime first-half volley.
New Zealand is ranked 58 spots below Australia in the FIFA rankings, but it meant little as the Socceroos’ trans-Tasman rivals showed scant respect to the $10 price offered pre-game by bookies for a Kiwi win.
The Socceroos were doddery and tentative in the first half, outplayed by a sharper and more creative All-White outfit. The opening 45 minutes was only memorable for those in green and gold because of a pair of poorly timed challenges.
The tackles came from two of the side’s more experienced heads, and were borne of frustration at the Socceroos’ first-half display.
All-White Leo Bertos must have wondered what he’d done wrong.
First, Vince Grella hopped, skipped and jumped into his shin, with the gleam of his studs showing. Minutes later, Tim Cahill’s trailing right boot raked down the same part of Bertos’ leg, forcing his withdrawal.
Grella’s challenge was a bona fide leg-breaker, and should have warranted a red rather than the yellow American ref Ricardo Salazar issued.
Cahill’s tackle had far less intent, but he too could have been dismissed had the game been a World Cup one and not a friendly.
Australia improved in the second half, with substitutes Carl Valeri and Mile Jedinak injecting structure in the formation. Dario Vidosic’s goal was well-taken, as was Brett Holman’s with virtually the last kick of the day.
But let us not paper over the cracks.
Australia’s defence looked slow and also battled to limit the aerial threat of New Zealand’s height – a worrying sign for the finals, particularly given the Socceroos will come up against Serbia’s star 202cm-striker Nikola Zigic.
At the other end, few chances were crafted. Even Vidosic’s goal came from a deflected Jason Culina ball, with the youngster reacting quicker than anyone else to volley home.
Verbeek named his final squad the day after the game, admitting in the post-match press conference that he had already had the 28 names in mind to travel to South Africa prior to the New Zealand friendly.
Striker Scott McDonald, creative midfielder Nick Carle and defender Jade North were the three whose World Cup dreams ended. Five more, including fourth-choice goalkeeper Eugene Galekovic, will be cut by the June 1 deadline.
McDonald had seemingly been handed a final chance to impress with a start against the Kiwis. His barren run for the Socceroos – goalless now in 16 appearances – continued to finish his chances.
But the trimming of Verbeek’s squad was still overshadowed by the side’s showing the night before.
Verbeek – in his last game in charge on Australian soil – didn’t back away from the performance post-match: "If we play the World Cup in three or four days, I should get worried," he said.
"But we have three weeks. It’s not a worry, because we can something about that."
It’s a typically straight answer from the Dutchman, but it won’t have done wonders for public confidence that Australia can get out of the group it shares with Germany, Serbia and Ghana in South Africa.
Because when the final whistle had sounded, more questions had been raised than answered.
Provisional 28-man squad:
Goalkeepers: Mark Schwarzer, Adam Federici, Brad Jones, Eugene Galekovic.
Defenders: Scott Chipperfield, David Carney, Lucas Neill, Michael Beauchamp, Shane Lowry, Craig Moore, Mark Milligan, Rhys Williams, Luke Wilkshire.
Midfielders: Vince Grella, Carl Valeri, Jason Culina, Mile Jedinak, Tim Cahill, Brett Holman, Dario Vidosic, Mark Bresciano, Brett Emerton, Richard Garcia, James Holland, Tommy Oar.
Strikers: Nikita Rukavytsya, Josh Kennedy, Harry Kewell.