Unsung Socceroos ready for next step towards World Cup

A star team, it is said, will always beat a team of stars.
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Which is just as well for the Socceroos as they prepare to take another couple of steps on their route to the World Cup in Russia in three years.

Once, Australia would select a squad made up of numerous players from the English Premiership, the Bundesliga, La Liga and the Serie A, not to mention a smattering of men from strong second-tier European leagues like Holland’s Eredivisie.

Not now. The bulk of Ange Postecoglou’s squad ply their trade in surroundings which in comparison are distinctly unglamorous, such as the English Championship, the J-League, the Middle East, South Korea and the domestic A-League.

Not that they should need a glittering array of talent playing at the highest level to deal with the likes of Bangladesh and Tajikistan, their next two opponents in Asian World Cup qualifying.

Postecoglou’s men face the Bangladeshis in Perth on Thursday before travelling to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, for a step into the unknown the following Tuesday.

Two wins in these two encounters would lift them to nine points from their first three games (they beat Kyrgyzstan away from home in June in the first game) and provide them with a perfect platform to ensure they take their place in the final Asian qualifying group phase next year.

Should the lack of big names at high-profile clubs really matter?

It won’t in this phase of qualifying, and may not, despite what some pessimists might fear, should Australia make it to Russia and be pitted against some of the world’s highest-ranked teams packed with players who regularly make the shortlist for global-player-of-the-year awards.

After all, it’s how the team performs together that counts, and there is no doubt that the Socceroos, especially under their home-grown coach, have risen to the occasion several times in the past few years when matched against teams made up of players with far more impressive CVs.

And plenty of countries have shown in the recent past that reputations established at the pinnacle of the club game may count for little at international level.

Algeria took eventual World Cup winners Germany to extra time in a thrilling round-of-16 match in Brazil last year, giving the Germans more trouble than any other opponent bar beaten finalists Argentina, who succumbed to Mario Gotze’s extra-time winner.

Even more impressive off an equally low base of expectation were the Costa Ricans, who only crashed out of the tournament in a penalty shoot-out at the quarter-final stage to the Dutch.

The Ticos were expected to be cannon fodder for Italy, Uruguay and England in the group phase, but they stunned not just those three countries but the football world by topping their group before seeing off Greece in a round-of-16 game.

The Central Americans boasted few big names. Brian Ruiz, whose dysfunctional seasons with Premier League stragglers Fulham had impressed no one, was their star man.

But he grew an arm and a leg, as did his countrymen, when they pulled on the national team shirt and the results of such belief and morale were there to see.

And of course the Socceroos themselves, devoid of headline names in Brazil, provided further evidence of what impact playing for the national team can have with two tremendous performances against the Netherlands and Chile. That form was made to look even better when the latter, 12 months later, won the Copa America to officially stamp themselves as South America’s No.1 team.

Australia’s Asian Cup triumph in January might not quite fall into the same category, but it could be argued that South Korea, the beaten finalists, certainly had a smattering of players with bigger names and profiles than any Australian save the ageing warrior Tim Cahill. The latter’s legend has only grown in the past decade even though it is a couple of years now since he left the Premier League, first for the MLS in America and now China’s Superleague.

For many players, appearing for their country is a huge opportunity to put themselves in the shop window, and galvanises them for that reason as they seek to impress and find a move to a bigger club or league.

For others it is simply a matter of national pride.

The current squad boasts several younger, promising players who may go on to bigger things.

It’s easy to forget that players like Massimo Luongo, Trent Sainsbury, Bailey Wright, Jason Davidson, Aziz Behich, Tommy Oar, Tom Rogic, Jackson Irvine, Chris Ikonomidis and Matthew Leckie are all still in their early to mid-twenties and have plenty of time to make the jump to higher levels. Given that Leckie is playing and scoring in the Bundesliga for a newly promoted club, it could be said he has.

Many Australians have proved themselves to be late bloomers. Cahill was in his mid-twenties before he got the chance to leave lower-level Millwall to play for Everton in the EPL. Lucas Neill spent years in South London with the same club before getting his EPL opportunity with Blackburn. Scott Chipperfield came through the old NSL before getting his move to Basel in Switzerland where he established his reputation and became a regular Socceroo. Richard Garcia plied his trade around the lower leagues in England before getting a Premiership chance with Hull City and making the national team, starting in the 2010 World Cup.

Oar, who burst on to the scene as a teenager with Brisbane Roar and moved to the Netherlands as a youngster, was a national team regular under Holger Osieck. He was a big part of Postecoglou’s plans at first.

But he lost his place during the World Cup and his whole career looked to be in limbo when he left Utrecht, his Dutch club, and had yet to find a new team when the European season kicked off in early August.

Postecoglou has shown faith and persevered with the diminutive winger, who came off the bench to score the decisive second goal in Kyrgyzstan, and he will be delighted to see Oar sealing a new deal at the weekend with English Championship promotion chasers Ipswich Town, where he now has the chance to get his career back on track.

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