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WITH GUUS HIDDINK AT THE HELM DURING THE 2006 WORLD CUP, THE SOCCEROOS WERE A DANGEROUS BUNCH. THEY DEFEATED JAPAN, OUTPLAYED BRAZIL FOR MUCH OF A GAME that ended in a 2-0 loss and then tied Croatia 2-2 in a mess of a match noteworthy because referee Graham Poll mistakenly allowed Josip Šimunic to continue playing after showing him two yellow cards. In the second round a dubious penalty kick awarded to Italy's Fabio Grosso on a challenge from Lucas Neill eliminated the Socceroos.
Now that Hiddink has departed and Pim Verbeek is in charge, Australia might be a different team, but its bread and butter remain the same: a solid defense and an opportunistic, albeit unspectacular, offense.
Verbeek favors a 4-5-1 formation, which puts a lot of pressure on the lone striker, Josh Kennedy, who had three goals in the three qualifying games. The 27-year-old forward, who came on as a substitute at the 2006 Cup, has the size (6' 4") and skill to do damage up front. Everton attacker Tim Cahill will likely slot in behind Kennedy. Not the biggest nor fastest nor most creative goal-scorer, Cahill, 30, is more likely to outjump defenders and get his head on a well-placed cross than he is to dribble around or through opponents. His style encapsulates the Socceroos' attack as a whole.
Harry Kewell's decision to leave hallowed Liverpool to play professionally for Galatasaray in Turkey raised more than a few eyebrows, but the 31-year-old is still capable of moments of brilliance that can change a game. Mark Bresciano, 30, who has played most of his career in Italy and is currently with Palermo, gives Verbeek three players across the field (with Cahill in the middle) who can dictate play and put pressure on defenders. But the anchor of the unit is defensive midfielder Vince Grella, 30. The Blackburn Rovers man pairs with Jason Culina to form a stable defensive block in front of the back four.
Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer is the squad's most important player, given how defensively the Socceroos play under Verbeek. At 37 he remains in top form and can keep Australia in any game. Team captain Neill, who like Kewell plays for Galatasaray, is the anchor of the back line, but the others are capable players. Scott Chipperfield (FC Basel), versatile midfielder-defender Brett Emerton (Blackburn Rovers) and Craig Moore (AO Kavala in Greece) are all veterans of the 2006 team.
Had they drawn an easier group, the Socceroos might be picked to advance. They are a veteran team, but they lack depth, and finding goals could be tough for them.