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  • Rowan Mackey

World Cup weekend recap - Round of 16

Weekend Wrap - Round of 16



As he's done to almost everyone he's encountered, LIONEL MESSI was the difference between Argentina and our Socceroos

Sadly, the World Cup is over for the Socceroos, who came devastatingly close to taking Lionel Messi’s Argentina to extra time in their Round of 16 match on Sunday.


Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be for Australia, with Messi’s superb strike proving to be the difference between the two sides. Despite the loss, the Socceroos should feel proud of their performance against the South American Champions.


As the Socceroos depart Qatar with their heads held high, let's look at five things we learned from the weekend’s fixtures, plus a look ahead to tonight’s games.


Five Things We Learned

Messi Is Just That Good

During the game against Argentina, it was evident that Lionel Messi was the most influential player on the pitch. Still, it wasn’t really until after the game that it became easier to appreciate just how good Messi was.


His goal, which he created from a tiny window of opportunity, put Argentina in front and would have dramatically relieved his Argentinian teammates as they headed into halftime.


Up to that point, Australia had performed admirably in defence, but Messi’s goal showed that you can’t switch off for even a few seconds against the best player of the modern generation, or he will score against you.


Watching the game at the time, Messi’s influence was clear, but it wasn’t until Messi’s individual highlights from the game were isolated that you realised just how incredible his performance was with his ability to control the ball and create space, either for one of his teammates or for himself to run into.


https://twitter.com/stopthatfooty/status/1599139785301323777?s=20&t=dw3vKx8O77CTCgr3LJpr-w


Obviously, the fact that he scored a goal and was influential in most of Argentina’s forays into the Australian penalty box suggested that he was central to Argentina’s win, but only when viewing the video highlights afterwards and seeing how many times he was able to beat an Australian defender or pinpoint a teammate with a pass that you realise the delicacy of Messi’s movements and ease at which he controls the ball.


It really was a joy to watch someone so adept at their craft in action, even though it meant that Australia was out of the World Cup.


Australia can also take a lot from the fact that they held their own against nearly all the other Argentinian players. Some of whom play in some of the biggest clubs and leagues around the world.


If, for some reason, Messi was injured or didn’t play against Australia, Argentina wouldn’t have been able to rely for so much of their attacking play, and Australia will feel that they would have been a strong chance to win the game if that was the case.


Unfortunately for the Socceroos, Messi did play, though, and on some level, you just have to stand back and applaud how good he was.


Messi lifted his Argentinian teammates onto his back, and as impressive as it was to watch, his country will need him to keep doing it for the rest of this World Cup if it is to finish with the fairytale win that his incredible career so richly deserves.


Kuol’s Sublime Touch Is A Sign Of Things To Come

For a tiny moment late in the game against Argentina, it looked as if Garang Kuol might have written his name into football folklore with a wonderful control of the ball, turn and shot that took a magnificent save to keep out.


Watching the game at the time, it was hard not to get caught up in the emotion of the fact that the ball hadn’t gone in and the Socceroos weren’t going to equalise, but seeing the replay of the shot after the game, you came to realise just how exceptional Kuol’s talent is and how good he could be in year’s to come.


Just before the ball is passed, if you look at where Kuol is in relation to the defender, you would think there’s very little chance that Kuol’s teammate would be able to pick him out with a pass.


As the ball is flicked over a wall of defenders, it’s remarkable how Kuol deftly controls the ball with his first touch, perfectly distancing the ball from himself as he lines up to take the shot


It’s a skill that would have been incredibly difficult to execute and shows that Kuol’s technical ability is quite advanced for someone his age. It’s unfortunate that the shot didn’t go in, but considering Kuol became the youngest player to take the field in the knockout stages of a World Cup since the great Pele, it augurs well for the future of the talented youngster for the Socceroos and by extension and fans of Australian football more generally.


Unfortunately, since the game, Kuol has been subject to vile, racist online abuse online and has turned off comments on social media. Anyone with any knowledge or interest in football could have understood that Kuol’s shot was incredibly difficult. The main thing is that he did incredibly well in the first place to create the shot opportunity. It’s a real shame that some people hide behind an unfortunate event like a miss on a football field to spout their hatred online.


Kuol deserves universal praise for the game against Argentina and his effort to make the team in the first place. Hopefully, it’s the last time he has to deal with this sort of thing for the rest of his career.


Socceroos Performance Could Bring In New Golden Era For Football In Australia

It was an incredible effort by the Socceroos to make the last 16 of the World Cup, and it will rightfully be lauded for years to come. But what makes the Socceroos' performance even more admirable is how they have done it with relatively little Federal or State Government funding compared to other sports in Australia.


This is before even looking at the budgets of the other football associations from countries around the world that they’re competing against.


For example, in Victoria, the State Government spends just $67 per participant funding football as a sport. Compare this with $1,444 for every person playing Australian rules football and $1,473 for every person playing hockey, and a picture of gross underfunding emerges relative to other sports.


It’s not just Victoria too. In the 2019 federal election, both sides pledged more than double the money to the AFL than to Football Australia, despite Aussie rules having less than half the participants compared with football.


It means that some of Australia’s best young talent is heading overseas to live and play at the established academies of other teams, particularly in Europe.


We’ve seen what can happen if young talent gets away from Australia too early with Christian Volpato, who was born and raised in Sydney and now plies his trade for Roma under José Mourinho. Volpato declined selection for Australia to the 2022 World Cup as he is holding out hope of playing for Italy.


Australia can’t afford to let our talented youngsters leave our shores and switch their international allegiance to another country. Having better infrastructure around talent development for football in Australia, as well as access to elite coaching and training facilities, can ensure that Australia won’t have to wait another 16 years to make the knockout stages of the World Cup again.


With the Socceroos doing so well and the Matilda’s hosting the World Cup in Australia next year, there’s lots of momentum around football in Australia now. The Federal and State Governments need to work together to give football the funding it needs to ensure that we capitalise on that momentum and translate it into more good results in years to come.


‘Lesser’ Sides Giving It a Go The Ones Performing the Best at This World Cup

It has been an incredibly exciting World Cup in terms of the number of upset results that have been thrown up.


Whether it was Saudi Arabia’s stunning win against Argentina, Japan’s twin victories against Spain and Germany, Australia’s famous triumph over Denmark or South Korea’s come-from-behind win against Portugal, there have been several extraordinary upsets so far at this World Cup that point to a broader pattern than just a couple of lucky victories.


It seems that, for one reason or another, the seemingly ‘lesser’ teams that are having a go and playing a more expansive or attacking style of football are doing better than the teams that are sitting back and aiming to soak up pressure.


No team illustrated this more than Australia, who sat back in their 4 - 1 drubbing against France and allowed Kylian Mbappe to run at players from a wide position and use the extra space to cause trouble for the Australian defence.


Australia approached the game differently against Denmark and Tunisia, where they set up in a less embedded defensive position and could counter-attack more easily.


This is the same with other teams that performed better when they decided to take the game to their opposition.


Saudi Arabia was dominated in the opening half of their first game against Argentina, but when they came out and attacked in the second half, it felt as though Argentina’s single-goal advantage wasn’t going to be enough. And so it proved to be.


Same with Japan in its games against Spain and Germany. In the first half, they played more defensively, which allowed their more favoured opponents to play more freely on the ball. When, in the second half, they attacked more, they scored two goals and won both games. But it was only when they changed the way they started playing and played less defensively did the game start to turn.


In the last ten minutes of the Australia vs Argentina game, Australia was throwing everything they had at the Argentinians and, on two occasions, very nearly scored what would have been the equalising goal. It was a stark difference from the first 80 minutes of the game when Australia didn’t create many chances at all.


I think there’s a lesson there to be had for the Socceroos that they should feel confident in approaching games more positively. It was always a central tenet of former Socceroos manager Ange Postecoglou's philosophy that regardless of who Australia played against, we should take the game to them.


At the time, it felt as though Postecoglou had overestimated the standard of Australian football a little bit, as it seemed impossible that Australia could go toe-to-toe with some of the biggest football nations in the world. But I think this World Cup has shown that Ange was right.


It is worth Australia thinking more positively about our style of football and how we can take it up to the best opposition on the biggest stage. The Socceroos haven’t died wondering at this World Cup and hopefully, that translates into a more expansive style of football that the Socceroos will play for years to come.


Arnie Has Earned Another Contract, And Please Keep René Muelensteen

There was a time not long ago that many followers of the Socceroos called for Graham Arnold to be replaced as manager.


But with Australia’s performance in the World Cup this year, plus the fact there are several talented youngsters already in and around the squad, I think Graham Arnold should earn a contract extension with the Socceroos for at least the next two years.


With the Asian Cup next year, Arnold could cap off a successful second stint with the Socceroos if he chooses to retire after an Asian Cup triumph. Still, if he wants to continue as coach, then I think it’s worth appointing Arnold until at least halfway through the next World Cup cycle.


A caveat to that, though, is that I think Australia should do all it can to hold onto the services of current assistant manager René Muelensteen.


Muelensteen was instrumental in Australia’s brilliant World Cup run and has experience managing at some of the biggest clubs around the world.


Muelensteen and Arnold have shown that together, they are a brilliant combination. Arnold is highly respected by all his players, and his ability to inspire confidence in the team is something I have personally severely underrated.


Muelensteen brings a wealth of technical coaching experience, including stints with Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson and managing in the Premier League with Fulham.


Australia is likely to lose several of its starters against Argentina to retirement between now and the next World Cup. But it is also a relatively exciting time for Australian football in terms of how many talented young players there are who could step in to fill their shoes. Garang Kuol, Harry Souttar, Kye Rowles, Riley McGree, Milos Degenek, Keanu Bacchus, Ajdan Hrustic and Fran Karacic all saw minutes against Argentina and will be there for the next World Cup if injury and form allow it.


In my view, it’s worth locking down both Arnold and Muelensteen so there is continuity with this squad for the next four years, and they can help manage the transition of responsibility from Australia’s more experienced heads, such as Mooy and Duke, to the younger generation who is ready to step up to take their place.



Tonight’s Schedule

2am AEDT - JAPAN v CROATIA

Japan will be hoping to earn their place as only the third nation from the Asian Confederation to play in a World Cup Quarter Final when they take on Croatia tomorrow morning.


Only South Korea (2002) and North Korea (1966) have ever made it beyond the Round of 16, and Japan can add their name to that list with a win against a Croatia side that has so far been relatively underwhelming at this World Cup.


Croatia, the 2018 tournament finalists, would have hoped to apply more scoreboard pressure during this World Cup, with a 4 - 1 win over Canada the only game they have found the net so far.


But their superior goal difference, plus a nil-all draw with Belgium, allowed them to progress in second place in their group.


Before the tournament, I doubt Croatia would have thought that a second-place finish in Group F would have seen them take on Japan, whose first-place finish in Group E was arguably the surprise result of the tournament so far.

The fact that Japan topped the group was made all the more impressive after they became only the third team in World Cup history to win two different matches in a single tournament whilst losing at halftime.


Croatia will need a full 90-minute performance and at least a 2-goal lead before they can relax against comeback kings Japan.


Croatia is currently the favourite for this match, but I think there’s a good chance that Japan can cause an upset and go on to face either Brazil or South Korea in the quarter-final.


6am AEDT - BRAZIL v SOUTH KOREA

Brazil will be hoping to repeat the performance of a 5 - 1 win over South Korea in June this year when the two sides meet tomorrow morning.


Neymar scored twice and Richarlison once in that international friendly match that will have provided a stark warning to the South Koreans about the quality of opposition they’re about to face.


Neymar is likely to return for Brazil after missing Brazil’s last two games, and he will hope that his appearance either in the starting side or off the bench will be able to help Brazil bounce back after their surprise 1 - 0 defeat to Cameroon in their final game of the group stage.


The loss was Brazil’s first in 18 matches, and Brazilian manager Tito can at least take comfort from the fact that the nine changes he made to his side for the game against Cameroon likely contributed to the loss.


South Korea will be hoping that the many changes to Brazil’s team mean that they cannot recapture the form that saw them win the first two games of the competition.


What is certain is that even if the South Korean players find themselves behind in the game, they’re unlikely to give up on getting a result, as they proved with their come-from-behind 2 - 1 victory over the pre-match favourites Portugal.


Brazil will feel confident they can progress beyond the Round of 16 to a likely matchup against Croatia. But they won’t want to underestimate this South Korean team who, despite qualifying second in their group, did so without best player Son Heung-Min scoring a goal or capturing the form that we’ve come to expect from the star Tottenham winger when he plays in the Premier League or Champions League.


Son has the ability to turn the game off his own boot, and Brazil will want to have a plan for how to dull the influence of the dynamic Korean winger.

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