Socceroos struggle for form and flair

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He’s a canny strategist, this Pim Verbeek. Lull the world into thinking that the Socceroos are easybeats and then POW! Suddenly Australia are walking away with a narrow 1-0 win over Germany.

At least, that’s the scenario that the most hopeful of Socceroos supporters have imagined for Australia’s opening World Cup clash against Germany. Far more likely is a mauling at the hands of die Mannschaft, as Australia go into just their third World Cup out of form and seemingly out of luck.

Even captain Lucas Neill seems wary, telling reporters that Australia would be “delighted with a draw” against Germany, where previously nothing short of a fervent call to arms would have passed the Galatasaray defender’s lips.

Such is the mood following three poor performances in pre-World Cup friendlies in which the disjointed football on display far outweighed the significance of the actual results.

New Zealand were dispatched 2-1 in desperately fortunate circumstances at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – midfielder Brett Holman scored the winner with virtually the last kick of the game – before Denmark succumbed to a lucky Josh Kennedy goal in Australia’s first hit-out on South Africa soil.

However, it was coach Verbeek’s decision to play a more attacking style in Australia’s final warm-up game that exposed the cracks in the Socceroos’ game plan, as the USA took full advantage of individual errors and a creaking defence to comfortably win 3-1.

Schwarzer beaten by brilliantly-named brace-bagger Edson Buddle

So out of form is midfield mainstay Vinnie Grella that speculation is mounting over his possible omission in favour of understudy Carl Valeri, while fellow veteran Mark Bresciano currently seems incapable of picking out a team-mate standing more than five yards away.

They’re just two of Australia’s regular starting XI currently struggling for form, and with injury doubts looming over star men Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell, there’s a gloomy pall hanging over the Socceroos ahead of their opening clash with the Germans at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.

Which, ironically, could all work in Australia’s favour. Traditionally, the Socceroos have always saved their best for stirring backs-to-the-wall displays, and with most critics writing off Pim Verbeek’s team ahead of their World Cup opener, the Socceroos may just consider themselves a chance to cause a major upset.

Not that Verbeek seems overly concerned – he’s already declared that the final two group games will decide who goes through, as Australia jostle with Ghana and Serbia for the predicted runner-up place behind group favourites Germany.

Yet for many Socceroos fans there’s no escaping the fact that the swashbuckling swagger of 2006 has been replaced by a more defensive outlook this time around, with the source generally pinpointed as Verbeek.

The Dutchman has already announced that he will leave after the World Cup to become the technical director for the Moroccan youth set-up, and Verbeek’s critics have pointed out that for all his talk of “leaving a legacy” in Australia, he will instead depart having relied upon the same players who excelled in Germany four years ago.

With Verbeek having already assured himself further employment regardless of Australia’s results in South Africa, he may need to steer the Socceroos to the knockouts just to keep his reputation intact.

There’s no doubt that the former Korea Republic coach has done a good job in not only guiding Australia to the World Cup finals, but also strengthening the battle-hardened resolve with which the Socceroos approach most international fixtures.

But battle-hardened or not, there’s a growing sense of unease in Australia that for all our tough talking and fighting spirit, we may just be out of our depth against a team with a genuine World Cup pedigree like Germany.

So it's with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that most Australians approach the Socceroos’ opening World Cup clash, as the nation waits with bated breath for a result that could either see Pim Verbeek annointed our latest tactical genius, or merely a common traitor to the cause.

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