Australia manager Pim Verbeek insists his side has a better understanding of Asian soccer since last year’s Asian Cup, but is taking nothing for granted ahead of next month’s crucial World Cup qualification matches.
The Socceroos joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006 in search of more competitive matches than the turkey shoots that had blunted their edge in Oceania, but their first taste of action in Southeast Asia last summer proved more than they bargained for.
Australia scraped through its first-round group after losing 3-1 to Iraq, before crashing out in the quarterfinals against Japan.
Verbeek, visiting Japan on a scouting mission last weekend, says his players have learned their lesson ahead of June’s World Cup qualification matches against Iraq, Qatar and China.
“The biggest advantage was that they had been in the Asian Cup already,” he said.
“That didn’t go too well, so they found out that it wasn’t as easy as they expected. Playing in 35-degree heat with humidity around 90 percent is not what they are used to.
“They know they have to give everything to get results, and that is a good thing. Everyone expects them to be No. 1 in the group, so the opponents are ready to fight.”
Australia has made a good start in its World Cup qualification group, beating Qatar 3-0 at home and claiming a 0-0 draw away to China.
But Verbeek knows his players’ success with European clubs can be a double-edged sword for the national team.
“We have a very difficult group but circumstances are difficult because most of our players are in Europe, so they have to join us immediately,” he said.
“There are teams coming in with lots of time to prepare, much better than we can bring. We also have to play in the Middle East where it is very hot, but it is nothing to complain about. It is my job to qualify.”
Australia tuned up for next month’s fixtures with a March friendly against Singapore, and Verbeek was satisfied with the 0-0 draw.
“I have some talented players in the Olympic team, and some who play in the A-League who have the potential but don’t have (the) experience of playing abroad,” he said.
“Games like that are very good to see how they cope.”
The Singapore match also saw a rare appearance from Liverpool’s Harry Kewell. Verbeek admits the winger’s thoughts are focused on his club situation, but says he will also play his part for the national team next month.
“He was struggling with injuries and he is not playing at Liverpool, and I don’t think they are going to give him another contract,” Verbeek said.
“He will be with us in the summer. His first priority is Liverpool because it is a great club, but a player with his reputation will always have teams interested in him. He is a great player.”
A move to a smaller club would make Verbeek’s battle to take players for international fixtures easier, but the Dutchman insists he has no qualms about going head to head with anyone.
“I always have problems,” he said. “But there is a difference between they don’t like it and they can’t stop it.
“There are no fights, but we know they are not happy. If you take a player with that quality, then you know that will happen. No one wants to see their players taking a 30-hour flight.
“But we have our doctors, and we do everything for the clubs to get the players fit to play back in Europe.”
If Australia and Japan both proceed from their groups, there is a good chance they might square off in the final World Cup qualification phase.
The two sides have built up a healthy rivalry from the Asian Cup match in Hanoi and the World Cup clash in Kaiserslautern, Germany, the year before, but Verbeek refused to be drawn on the prospect of a third installment.
“Everything is possible,” he said. “But I wouldn’t look that far into the future.”