Group D: Australia
They'd be proud to be described as "B*ggers to beat", but the Socceroos need a cutting edge, warns Sam Pilger...
After three decades in the international wilderness, Australia have broken new ground by qualifying for consecutive World Cup finals for the first time in their history. Their strong, experienced squad is capable of repeating the heroics of Germany four years ago when they reached the second round before being narrowly Ã¢ÂÂ and controversially Ã¢ÂÂ beaten by eventual world champions Italy.
Ã¢ÂÂOur main aim is getting out of the group again, because thatÃ¢ÂÂs when teams build momentum,Ã¢ÂÂ says AustraliaÃ¢ÂÂs talisman Tim Cahill. Ã¢ÂÂSo long as we do that anything can happen... now we want to go a step further and reach the quarter-finals. As a nation we want to test ourselves and go further than ever before.Ã¢ÂÂ
Such bullish optimism is based on a impressive qualifying campaign in which Australia, playing for the first time as part of the Asian Football Confederation, topped their first round group and then emphatically qualified by finishing top of their eight-game final group with six wins, two draws and only one goal conceded.
This was achieved with a largely defensive 4-2-3-1 formation rigidly adhered to by AustraliaÃ¢ÂÂs Dutch coach Pim Verbeek that had Australians pining for the comparatively attacking instincts of his illustrious predecessor Guus Hiddink. Nonetheless, VerbeekÃ¢ÂÂs methods have proved highly successful, delivering qualification for South Africa, as well as outstanding away wins against Holland and the Republic of Ireland in friendlies, and the countryÃ¢ÂÂs highest ever FIFA ranking of 14th in September last year.
Ã¢ÂÂOur strength is our experience,Ã¢ÂÂ says the Australian captain Lucas Neill. "We've been to the World Cup before, we know what to expect." The veterans of Germany 2006 make Australia a very tough side to break down, with the ageless Mark Schwarzer (37) in goal, who kept 10 clean sheets in qualifying and is coming off a decent season with Fulham.
Schwarzer is protected by two defensive barriers: a back four led by Neill (32) and Craig Moore (34), and the holding midfield duo of Jason Culina (29) and BlackburnÃ¢ÂÂs Vinnie Grella (30).
Where do goals come from? That's the biggest concern for an Australian side that lacks real pace up front and managed only 12 goals in eight qualifiers against modest Qatar, Japan, Bahrain and Uzbekistan. Though never prolific for his country, Mark Viduka provided a crucial focal point; he hasn't been replaced since his retirement.
After 16 goalless caps MiddlesbroughÃ¢ÂÂs Scott McDonald was axed by Verbeek, who now has few options: Josh Kennedy seems to be an impact substitute, Nikita Rukavytsya has just three caps and old hands Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell are more effective coming from midfield.
With English fathers, Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill could both have been lining up for England at this World Cup.
The Coach: Pim Verbeek
A journeyman coach who has held 13 positions over the last three decades, the Dutchman is making his third consecutive visit to the World Cup finals after being South KoreaÃ¢ÂÂs assistant manager alongside Guus Hiddink in 2002 and Dick Advocaat in 2006. Appointed by Australia in December 2007, the 54-year-old will leave his post after the tournament.
Key Player: Tim Cahill
After becoming the first Australian to ever score at the World Cup in Germany four years ago, the Everton midfielder remains his countryÃ¢ÂÂs most potent goal threat.
Probable Team (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Wilkshire, Neill, Moore, Carney; Culina, Grella; Emerton, Cahill, Bresciano; Kewell
Germany, June 13, 7.30pm, Durban
Ghana, June 16, 3pm, Rustenberg
Serbia, June 23, 7.30pm, Nelspruit
Qualified Top of Asia Group 1
Qatar (H) 3-0
China (A) 0-0
Iraq (H) 1-0
Iraq (A) 0-1
Qatar (A) 3-1
China (H) 0-1
Uzbekistan (A) 1-0
Qatar (H) 4-0
Bahrain (A) 1-0
Japan (A) 0-0
Uzbekistan (H) 2-0
Qatar (A) 0-0
Bahrain (H) 2-0
Japan (H) 2-1
World Cup record
1974 1st Round
2006 2nd Round