The Asian Cup kicked off in Melbourne on Friday with a goal-laden game between hosts Australia and Kuwait. One of the pre-tournament favorites, Australia, eventually ran out 4-1 winners but the scoreline didn’t reflect some of the anxiety the Socceroos suffered throughout the 90 minutes.
Ange Postecoglu’s side went behind early in the piece and it took the Aussies a little time to recover from the shock. Even when they went ahead Australia didn’t look wholly convincing and had to thank their keeper Mat Ryan and the woodwork from allowing the Kuwaitis back into the game.
That said the Socceroos did grow into the game and impressed going forward. Massimo Luongo had a game to remember, Tim Cahill produced again for his country whilst Mathew Leckie and Robbie Kruse impressed with their jinks and dribbles.
The result marked a satisfactory start for Australia whilst there were a few positives for the Kuwaitis to take out of the game despite a heavy defeat. The 2015 AFC Cup has well and truly begun.
Here are my 5 observations from the game:
1. Luongo repays Postecoglu’s faith:
Before the match began one of the big talking points was whether veteran Mark Bresciano would start the opener for Australia. In the end Ange Postecoglu put his trust in in Swindon Town player Massimo Luongo and was rewarded handsomely.
Luongo set-up Tim Cahill for Australia’s equalizer with an intelligent cutback from the right hand side of the Kuwaiti area before scoring his first international goal for the Socceroos with a Cahill-esque header.
Were it not for his intervention Australia would have gone into half time one goal down instead up. His industrious and committed display built the platform for Australia’s eventual triumph.
Postecoglu can give himself a pat on the back for making the right call.
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2. Can intensity see the Socceroos through?
A key feature from first whistle to the last was the sheer physical intensity of the Australians. Not only were they dominant in the air and hard in the tackle but their pressing, desire to play the ball quickly and physical fitness eventually overwhelmed the Kuwaitis.
The last 20 minutes of the game saw a physically fitter Australia take advantage of a wilting Kuwaiti side and perhaps was a telling insight into Ange Postecoglu’s plans for winning the tournament.
Australia have their wise old heads in Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak whilst Robbie Kruse and Mathew Leckie displayed flashes of trickery that can turn matches. Indeed it was Kruse who earned Australia’s penalty, which Jedinak duly dispatched.
What the Australians seem to lack though is a proper schemer so in the absence of their own version of Shinji Kagawa or Omar Abdulrahman it looks as if the Socceroos will attempt to over power their opponents.
Judging on this result it could be the right game plan for the hosts.
MORE — Read our preview of the 2015 Asian Cup.
3. Mat Ryan proves Pim Verbeek right:
Former Australian head coach Pim Verbeek singled out goalkeeper Mat Ryan as a key player for the Aussies and Club Brugge goalkeeper didn’t disappoint.
Questions could be raised about his positioning for Kuwait’s opening goal though none of the Australian defenders covered themselves in glory but he did come up trumps at key moments.
In truth he didn’t have a whole lot to do but when he was needed he responded with aplomb. With the game at 3-1 Ryan produced a top drawer save to tip Fahad Al Ebrahim’s superbly improvised effort on to the bar. He prevented the Kuwaitis from getting a foothold back into the game.
Though the score line reflected an air of Australian dominance it didn’t reflect some of the nervous tension the Socceroos and their fans felt during the course of the match.
Whilst Ange Postecoglu will be happy with the resilience his team showed to comeback from goal down he would have been concerned at the vulnerability of his backline.
Kuwait’s neat interplay posed problems for the Australian back four and perhaps if the Middle Eastern side had shown more attacking intent they could have spoiled the party for the hosts.
On the basis of this display the Australians can be got at.
4. Slivers of comfort for Kuwait:
In the end the Australians deserved the victory but that shouldn’t take away how difficult the Kuwaitis made things for the hosts, at least early on.
Hussain Fadhel’s brave diving header gave Kuwait a shock 1-0 lead though the defending did leave a lot to be desired.
Indeed on the ball Kuwait looked comfortable and passed intelligently and in their number 10 Aziz Mashaan they have a good, clever player. From the flanks the full backs got forward well to add width.
Their next game will be against South Korea and it is a match the Kuwaitis cannot lose. Nabil Maâloul, the head coach of Kuwait, must decide whether to start Badar Al-Mutawa upfront and go for the win or bench the Kuwaiti icon and play in a more conservative manner.
The Kuwaitis are capable of pulling off an upset but they will need to be brave in order to pull it off.
5. Is one of the best referees in the world based in Asia?
Remember Ravshan Irmatov? He was the referee who allowed play to go on after Valon Behrami was fouled in the final minute of the Switzerland-Ecuador match. His choice to play advantage proved to be right as the Swiss went on to score the winner.
He took charge of the inaugural match of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup and got very little wrong. He waved away, correctly, a number of penalty appeals from the home side when their players hit the deck in the area. The spot-kick he did award in favour of Robbie Kruse was the right call.
Overall, he was always well placed to make the correct calls, no mean feat given the breakneck tempo of the Aussie game. He was firm without being over officious, let the game flow and exuded authority.
It may be odd discussing the performance of a referee in this light but there have been gripes now and again about how only officials from ‘top’ footballing nations should handle big matches. Irmatov, who has refereed two quarterfinals and a semi in his World Cup career, is proof that the best officials don’t necessarily officiate in the best leagues.
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