Japan v Australia: a game of confirmed suspicions

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It would be dishonest to say that we learned anything from Australia’s 2-1 defeat to Japan on Monday night. As one swallow doesn’t make a summer, there was nothing here that we didn’t already know from the national team’s previous 11 matches under Ange Postecoglou.

Instead of pretending otherwise, here are a few things we knew about the Socceroos that were reinforced by the result of an international friendly.

Tim Cahill is a troubling focal point
Ever since Tim Cahill stopped being the Tim Cahill that scores game-winning goals and started being the Tim Cahill that scores consolation goals – by my reckoning, around the moment he was suspended for the last match against Spain – the Socceroos have lost their sense of direction. Even in defeat in Brazil, they hinted at a brighter future than the pre-tournament pessimism had allowed; the loss to the Netherlands gave the World Cup one of its better games, and probably its best goal, but there’s been little evidence of progress since.

Now, Cahill is playing out his days until the Asian Cup and presumably, at its conclusion, international retirement. This is great, in part, because everyone likes when Tim Cahill scores for Australia. It’s concerning, though, because Cahill has scored nine of the Socceroos’ 13 goals under Ange Postecoglou and is almost certainly on his way out, while Postecoglou remains beyond January next year (depending on results in January next year).

Cahill’s contribution in front of goal translates to the not entirely unfair perception that the national team is hopeless without him, which has given way to a desperate sense of dependency.

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When he doesn’t play, the Socceroos drift; when he does, a game plan – smack it from anywhere onto Timmy’s forehead – manifests itself.

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The pre-Cahill performance against the Japanese offered glimpses of mild cohesiveness, but first half hyperbole and five minutes at the end aside, Australia was on the back foot; it was fortunate that Japan was only slightly less incapable of finishing their chances than we were. With his side down 2-0 in a international friendly, Cahill came on and made the score seem more respectable to both those who didn’t watch the game and those who did but will try to forget it.

Another goal for the eulogising montages and another goal to remind Australian football that its only talisman is a man who is almost 35. Tom Rogic floats somewhere in the ether, Tommy Oar has barely developed since his first cap four years ago and Mitch Nichols wore the same number as Mark Viduka. The Socceroos are waiting for their Nick Kyrgios – an electrifying wunderkind to lead the next generation, but…

…We really just need Harry Kewell from 1999
And there’s no need to elaborate on the undeniable.

We still shouldn’t expect things of the Socceroos
Not for a while yet, anyway. It’s hard to gauge how competent Australia’s defenders are because you have to take into account the quality of the rest of the team, too. If the midfield gives up possession and leaves Franjic, Wilkinson, Sainsbury and Behich out of position, it’s hard to just blame the backline when it concedes a goal – they can’t help that they’re not better footballers and they can’t help that they’re the best that we’ve got.

Beyond being fair about the ability of the defence lies insincerity. Konno was left unmarked at a corner, in a weird amount of space, to stoop for a header and the opening goal, but Andy Harper maintained in commentary that the defence wasn’t that bad. Morishige ran through two men and assisted a goal that was scored with a backheel, second only to a Panenka penalty in any salt-in-the-wound stakes, but Andy Harper maintained in commentary that the defence wasn’t that bad.

At times, praise for the Socceroos bordered on a level of disingenuousness not seen since Craig Foster had a few matches in the SBS booth during the World Cup – “Good work— no, GREAT work from the lads out there to hold onto possession, this is MESMERISING stuff from the boys!” he’d spit into the microphone as Australia passed back from the defenders to the goalkeeper. It’s more appealing than the alternative – wallowing in defeat – but it encourages contentment with mediocrity.

That we didn’t concede a goal in the first half of the game against Japan was apparent cause for celebration of Australia’s best performance since the World Cup, but we also didn’t win. We had more possession in the first half, but we also didn’t win. We played fast, direct football on the ground, but didn’t win. In the end, resorting to the plan B that for nearly eight years has been our plan A, we lost.

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The 2014 World Cup, foisted upon him with barely any time to mould a team in his image, was largely irrelevant to Ange Postecoglou’s legacy, but the Asian Cup won’t be. The Socceroos only need to win a few games in a row to see him through to 2018, but for now, the ice continues to melt under his feet.

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