Following their 4-1 thumping at the hands of Norway at the weekend, Australia put on a vastly improved performance against Colombia at Craven Cottage on Tuesday night. Though the game ended 0-0, the Socceroos will take plenty of positives from the game, particularly the fact that they kept a clean sheet against a world-class attack.
1. Socceroos’ defence holds on
Australia started with a new-look back four of Mark Milligan, Milos Degenek, Aziz Behich and Josh Risdon, which appeared far more solid than the defensive unit that faced Norway just four days earlier. Indeed, Colombia’s danger men James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao had precious few opportunities to cause trouble at all, with the latter being substituted at half-time.
More than just the structural changes, though, it was the attitude of the Socceroos that was greatly improved from their showing in Oslo. There was a clear hunger to press higher up the pitch in defence, as well as a healthy dose of composure in possession. Though still clearly coming to terms with the pragmatic approach of new coach Bert van Marwijk, there were signs that Australia’s defence can be so much better than it was under Ange Postecoglou. Full-backs Risdon and Behich were included in the attack when necessary, but restrained enough to ensure there were no gaping holes for Colombia to attack out wide.
There were certainly worrying signs in van Marwijk’s first game in charge against Norway, but this result will go a long way to easing the concerns of troubled fans back in Australia.
2. Van Marwijk tinkers with personnel
Beyond the changes in defence, the Socceroos made a handful of other changes from the side that was humbled in Oslo. Regular goalkeeper Mat Ryan was rested to give Brad Jones his first appearance for the national team in four years while Danny Vukovic made his international bow in goal in the second half, saving a crucial penalty in the dying moments.
Midfield anchor Aaron Mooy was a late withdrawal from the matchday squad, allowing Massimo Luongo a start alongside skipper Mile Jedinak. Perhaps more importantly, newcomer Andrew Nabbout was pushed into his more familiar role wide on the left as striker Tomi Juric resumed his position as the focal point of the attack.
This gave Australia’s line-up far more balance, with Juric able to hold the ball up, bringing Nabbout, Tommy Rogic and Mat Leckie into the game. It was surprising not to see Robbie Kruse starting in this attacking quartet given his current form in the Bundesliga with VfL Bochum, though the 29-year-old was introduced with 15 minutes of the game remaining.
The new Socceroos boss will have few opportunities left to experiment heading into the World Cup, but the two matches against Norway and Colombia have allowed him to see a number of his players perform in high-pressure situations. It will be fascinating to see how these insights manifest in the line-up against France in Kazan on June 16.
3. High-energy approach key for Colombia
The pressing from Colombia in this friendly was fierce. At times they smothered the Socceroos’ attack, particularly honing in on Jedinak and Luongo, often forcing cheap turnovers in possession in the middle of the pitch.
But for a couple of line-ball offside decisions in the second half, two slightly wayward headers from Miguel Borja and a missed penalty, this high-energy strategy would have resulted in Colombia winning the contest. Colombia grew more and more dominant as the game went on but were ultimately unable to breakthrough for the winner.
If Jose Pekerman’s men can display this kind of enthusiasm in defence, as well as the finishing on show when they defeated France 3-2 a few days earlier, they should easily progress to the Round of 16 at the World Cup. Though Group H opponents Japan, Poland and Senegal will be no pushovers, the signs are good at this early stage for the 2014 World Cup quarterfinalists.
For Australia, focus now turns to final preparations for the World Cup in Russia with a pre-tournament camp to commence in Turkey in mid-May.
Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks