Selection the biggest of many headaches for new Socceroos boss

Australian football fans and media took a stroll down memory lane this week as Tuesday marked the fifth anniversary of a watershed moment in the Australian game.

On November 16 2005, the Socceroos’ penalty shootout play-off win against nemesis Uruguay saw Australia grab the last spot at the 2006 World Cup, propelling the national team to the finals for the first time in 32 years and breaking a qualification hoodoo many said was a curse after previous playoff losses to Argentina (1993), Iran (1997) and the aforementioned La Celeste (2001).

Twitter streams and web posts were flooded with fans reminiscing about Mark Bresciano’s statuesque pose after scoring, Mark Schwarzer’s penalty-saving heroics and John Aloisi’s now iconic winning penalty (and the emotional commentary that went with it).

Two days later, those same fans fell back to earth with a bump after the Socceroos' 3-0 loss to Egypt in Cairo. Listless and disjointed, the Australians were outplayed in every facet of the game and coach Holger Osieck will be left with more questions than answers leading up to the Asian Cup tournament, which begins on January 7.

One of the main problems for the current group of players is that they’re not the 2006 version. After seeing their country qualify for back-to-back World Cups and witnessing players like Tim Cahill and Mark Schwarzer shine in the Premier League, fans had their expectations raised to all but unrealistic level.

In reality, the aforementioned Everton and Fulham stars are the only ones playing regularly at the highest level. Other key players have been plagued by either injury and inconsistency, like Brett Emerton at Blackburn and Mark Bresciano at Lazio, or play in second-tier leagues like Harry Kewell and Lucas Neill (Turkey), Josh Kennedy (Japan), Brett Holman (Holland) and Scott McDonald (The Championship).

The biggest question being asked of Osieck – and, for that matter, was constantly put to his predecessor Pim Verbeek – is whether the right players are being picked. While every international team has players out in the cold, if the forums and some media pundits are to be believed, Australia could field an alternate XI with the players not selected to the squad.

Most noticeably, there has been a clamour for an injection of youth into a team which was one of the oldest at South Africa 2010, especially after the recent success of the U19 and U16 sides. Youngsters such as Tommy Oar, Ben Kantarovski and Kerem Bulut have have all been tipped for big things and calls to promote them to the senior squad have been loud and numerous.

Craig Moore and Tommy Oar in suitably aquatic locale

However, poster-boy Oar – touted by many as the second coming of Harry Kewell after one good performance in an Asian Cup qualifier – has struggled to see playing time at new side Utrecht, prompting Osieck to say young Australian players will have to earn their place in the squad.

“The problem is that young players are put on a podium after one or two games,” said Osieck. “It takes a lot more to establish yourself at the top level of football and I think we should recognise that. They first have to prove their consistency at lower levels before they are ready to step up.”

Another selection controversy has been call-up of defender Sasa Ognenovski – a controversy as many believe it has happened too late. A tough, uncompromising centre-half, ‘Big Sash’ has been enjoying the form of his life since joining Korean side Seongnam Ilwha Chunma, with whom he won the Asian Champions League final last weekend.

With Lucas Neill increasingly looking his age and promising youngster Matt Spiranovic unable to stay healthy for any period of time, Ognenovski looked to be a post-World Cup shoo-in at the back, but it has taken four months for Osieck to give one of the best defenders in Asian football his first start. Ognenovski looks to have done enough to win a place in the Asian Cup squad, but a lack of playing time with his fellow Socceroos defenders could count against him winning a starting berth.

Capping off Osieck’s selection headaches is Turkish-Australian defender Ersan Bulut, who has been at the centre of tug-of-love between Turkey and Australia for his services. Capped twice for the Australian U23s in 2007, Gulum fell off the Socceroo radar until this season, when a loan move to Besiktas and some impressive performances re-ignited the defender’s chances of selection to the national team.

The problem is that the Turkish FA had also been sniffing around Bulut, sounding him out to see if he would play for the country of his parents. And in a delicious irony, it was former Australia coach Guus Hiddink who selected Bulut in the 24-man squad for Turkey’s match against the Netherlands.

Cue an outcry in the Australian press about the FFA taking their eye off the ball with Bulut – the most impressive being this rant by SBS’s Jesse Fink – and Osieck being forced to field questions in Cairo about a player he’d probably never heard of a month ago.

“Four weeks ago no-one talks about him and he did not even play, and now all of a sudden he becomes the object of desire.”

As it happens, Bulut didn't play against the Netherlands – but welcome to the Socceroo job, Mr Osieck.

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