Peru shatter Australian dreams with comfortable victory

Australia came into their clash with Peru with reason for optimism. They had pushed Denmark to the brink in their last game, and were unlucky not to come away with the win, and they certainly didn’t disgrace themselves against the French. They did lose, but that wasn’t exactly an expected result. Now, all they had to do was beat Peru, and hope the French and the Danish didn’t come to some pesky agreement that would see them both progress at Australia’s expense. The beating of Peru would surely be the easy part. They couldn’t be that good, could they?

Australia started the game well, controlling possession and territory and looking the more threatening of the sides without creating too much. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Peru scored. Peru hadn’t made many attacks, but when they did get forward they did so with devastating effect. Paolo Guerrero managed to get on the end of a long ball (from a seemingly offside position) and he ran into space inside the box. Well corralled, he hung a cross towards the edge of the area, where André Carrillo was making a run towards the ball. Every part of the goal was timed to perfection. Carrillo met Guerrero’s cross just before it hit the ground, and his volley was perfect. It shot off his boot with force, eluding Aziz Behich and Mark Milligan and beating Mathew Ryan’s dive as it rolled forcefully into the bottom corner. Australia were behind, and it wasn’t really clear how it had happened.

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Paolo Guerrero scores Peru’s second goal under pressure from Mark Milligan. Guerrero’s goal all but sealed the Socceroos’ fate.

Then Peru went back to casually sitting back, holding the Australians at bay with contemptuous ease and only really looking threatened on a couple of occasions. Tom Rogic drove through the heart of the Peruvian defence, ducking and weaving while holding off his opponents and holding onto the ball. He fired off a shot while surrounded by defenders, but he was unable to beat Pedro Gallese, who was perfectly placed to repel the effort. It was Rogic who proceeded to create the best chance of the half, threading the ball through the Peruvian defence and finding Robbie Kruse deep inside the box. Kruse pulled it back for Matthew Leckie, but Peru were in position and the ball was diverted out for a corner. Australia went into half time very much in control of the play, but behind on the scoresheet.

The game was basically over less than five minutes after half time, thanks to the work of Guerrero. Peru’s talismanic captain (he is so revered that residents of Lima protested in the streets when news came through of his since-overturned World Cup suspension), found the ball in the box, and a bit of space was all he needed. Christian Cueva started it, running down the left and cutting in to shoot against the slightly stretched Socceroos defence. Mile Jedinak was there, and he stuck out a leg to block the shot, but he couldn’t stop it from bouncing towards Guerrero, who was lying in wait. Guerrero swivelled and shot with his left foot, Milligan got a slight touch on the ball, and it seemed to travel into the bottom corner in slow motion. It left Australia, having failed to score a goal from open play all tournament, needing three goals just to have a chance of qualification. Peru were proving a bit harder than first thought.

Now needing a minor miracle to progress, Bert van Marwijk summoned Tim Cahill from the bench. Cahill has had an interesting year. He quit A-League team Melbourne City, citing his desire to get game time before his fourth World Cup, and then spent the rest of the season warming the bench in a fruitless spell with Millwall. The 38-year-old’s selection in the World Cup squad met with some consternation, with critics suggesting he was only there for marketing reasons. Then he didn’t play in Australia’s first two matches, and as the Socceroos fought desperately for goals against France and Denmark there was outrage as he was not called on to take the field, and Australia couldn’t rely on his penchant for headed goals. So, with Australia in dire straits at 2-0 down, Cahill finally found himself called into the fray, and found himself cast as Australia’s saviour.

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Tim Cahill (bending over) uses Mile Jedinak as a meat shield before an Australian corner. The tactic never really worked, but Australia continued to use it at every set piece involving the talismanic striker.

The players seemed to be relying on him too. When Australia finally had a set piece with Cahill on the field, three players formed a human shield between him and the Peruvian defence. For his part, Cahill put his hands around Leckie’s waist, and jumped around on the balls of his feet. It didn’t really work that time, and it didn’t really work when Australia won other corners and free-kicks either. If Peru were supposed to be unnerved by the presence of a player so formidable in the air that he was cloaked by a retinue of bodyguards at every corner, they weren’t. Cahill created a couple of chances, like when he flicked the ball on to Behich and the left-back’s shot was deflected away, and when he found a chance to volley in the box but couldn’t get his shot past the well-positioned Christian Ramos, but the couple of chances weren’t enough.

It soon became clear that Australia just weren’t good enough to break Peru down. Their build-up play was lethargic, and they couldn’t take advantage of Cahill’s presence as a result. They controlled possession, but their attacks consisted of shuffling the ball from side to side, and occasionally chancing a cross which was blocked by one of many Peruvian defenders queueing up to scupper the Australian attacks. It seemed like Australia’s only hope of getting the ball into Cahill was if the Peruvian defenders got bored of waiting for the Socceroos to do something and they drifted off. Australia controlled the game, but the match played out exactly as Peru had planned it: the Peruvians sat back, waited for an opening and hit them on the break. Peru finished the match with just four shots. They only needed two of them to send Australia packing.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Australia 0
Peru 2 (Carrillo 18, Guerrero 50)
Referee: Sergei Karasev (Rus)
Australia (4-2-3-1): Ryan – Risdon, Sainsbury, Milligan, Behich; Jedinak, Mooy; Leckie, Rogic (Irvine 72), Kruse (Arzani 58); Juric (Cahill 53).
Peru (4-2-3-1): Gallese – Advíncula, Ramos, Santamaría, Trauco; Tapia (Hurtado 63), Yotún (Aquino 46); Carrillo (Cartagena 79), Cueva, Flores; Guerrero.

Top 5
1. André Carrillo (Peru)
Carrillo’s three performances in Russia have been nearly flawless, and he capped off an excellent individual World Cup by finding the back of the net with a stunning volley. His goal, coupled with his excellent work rate in both attack and defence, made him one of Peru’s most dangerous and effective players.
2. Paolo Guerrero (Peru)
Guerrero didn’t receive a lot of service from his teammates, and he was often left out of the action for lengthy periods of time. When he did touch it, however, his work was brilliant. His goal came from a very classy finish, and although the run he made before his assist was questionable the pass itself was top class. A brilliant performance.
3. Tom Rogic (Australia)
Rogic looked like Australia’s only real attacking threat until he was bizarrely removed with 20 minutes to go. He created a couple of chances out of nothing, and his ball to tee up Australia’s best opportunity of the match was beautifully executed.
4. Luis Advíncula (Peru)
Advíncula used his pace to good effect as he contributed solidly to the Peruvian defence and occasionally offered something going forward. His combination with Carrillo was as strong as ever, and he determinedly continued to rebuff Australia as they looked to eat into the deficit.
5. Aziz Behich (Australia)
Australia’s campaign may have ended in disappointment, but Behich should take credit for another strong performance at left-back to cap off a good individual World Cup. He looked as dangerous as ever when he got up the pitch at pace, and found plenty of the ball while Australia looked to break down an organised defensive front.

Wasteful Australia made to pay as Denmark take a draw

Where was Timmy? As Australia badgered the Danish defence, controlling possession and creating promising opportunity after promising opportunity, Australia’s 38-year-old talisman was conspicuously absent. Australia were desperately searching for some kind of inspiration, something that would take them past the Danish and seal a crucial win. Why then, with the game winding down and Australia pushing hard for a goal, was Tim Cahill, the Socceroos’ all-time leading scorer, sitting on the bench wearing an ugly green shirt and a dull brown vest? Bert van Marwijk used Tomi Juric, and the gangly striker got in the way. Jackson Irvine was used, and had no impact. For all of Australia’s efforts, they got a draw.

Australia may have been disappointed with the final result, but they would have taken it gratefully had they been offered it 10 minutes in. Australia started slowly, and went behind when they bungled a defensive clearance, turning the ball over in a vulnerable position. Nicolai Jørgensen received the ball on the edge of the box, and managed to evade Trent Sainsbury before playing a bouncing pass into the centre. It was Christian Eriksen, Denmark’s star playmaker and most dangerous attacking threat, who ran onto the ball in plenty of space. Aziz Behich tried to get there, but he was too far away to make a difference as Eriksen hit an unstoppable side-footed shot into the top corner. Mathew Ryan dived, but the Australian keeper had no chance.

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Pione Sisto (front) leads Matthew Leckie to the ball. Sisto was one of Denmark’s few attacking threats during a poor second half display.

As Denmark continued to control play and stifle most of Australia’s attacks, it seemed like the Socceroos had little chance of breaking down their solid defence. Matthew Leckie found chances, and made a few things happen with his pace down the right wing, but Robbie Kruse’s lack of poise in the attacking third meant such moves broke down on more than one occasion. Then, more through good fortune than anything else, Australia levelled. The goal was almost identical to the one they scored in their game against the French. Like the first game, they won a penalty after a handball in the area (although this one was more controversial), and Mile Jedinak’s shot was almost identical to his spot kick against the French. Kasper Schmeichel obviously hadn’t done his homework, and he flung himself the wrong way. Australia were level at half time as a result, and they looked to go on to better things after the break.

The Socceroos came out after half time and created plenty of trouble for the Danish defence. Early on, Jens Stryger Larsen was forced to head Behich’s dangerous cross away from an onrushing Matthew Leckie. Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic both challenged Schmeichel from distance, with the latter forcing the Danish keeper into making a solid save and the former sending the ball whistling over the bar. Denmark couldn’t attack with any fluency, Eriksen was basically anonymous and Mooy’s creative talents were starting to come to the fore. Australia just needed the finishing touch. They just needed Timmy. When striker Andrew Nabbout dislocated his shoulder, van Marwijk had his chance. A change was made, but it was Juric who came on. Soon after, Leckie had a chance as he attempted a volley. Juric made himself a nuisance, the shot went wide, and it became clear that Australia needed a clinical touch. Where was Timmy?

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Tomi Juric (front) competes with Andreas Christensen. Juric was introduced for Andrew Nabbout in favour of talismanic striker Tim Cahill, and didn’t justify his inclusion.

One Australian substitute did have a big impact, but it just wasn’t enough. Daniel Arzani was introduced with just over 20 minutes left, replacing Kruse after his poor effort on the left wing. After a slightly slow start, the World Cup’s youngest player began to get on the ball, and his impact was immediate. He breezed past Pione Sisto on the right wing with one remarkable touch, and whipped in a cross that, unfortunately for Australia, flew past everyone and out for a throw-in. Then, after getting the ball on the left, he weaved his way into the box and drilled a shot at Schmeichel. For the rest of the match, he provided nuggets like that, receiving licence to roam and dropping into space to cause Denmark plenty of problems. Unfortunately for Australia, the lack of an outlet to finish his chances meant most of the young gun’s best work was unrewarded. As Denmark held on for a draw that massively boosts their progress but seriously jeopardises Australia’s, there was one question on the lips of all Socceroos fans. Where on earth was Timmy?

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Denmark 1 (Eriksen 7)
Australia 1 (Jedinak 38 pen)
Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz (Esp)
Denmark (4-3-3): Schmeichel – Dalsgaard, Kjær, Christensen, Stryger Larsen; Delaney, Schöne, Eriksen; Poulsen (Braithwaite 59), Jørgensen (Cornelius 68), Sisto.
Australia (4-2-3-1): Ryan – Risdon, Sainsbury, Milligan, Behich; Jedinak, Mooy; Leckie, Rogic (Irvine 82), Kruse (Arzani 68); Nabbout (Juric 75).

Top 5
1. Matthew Leckie (Australia)
Leckie was the only Australian who consistently threatened for the entirety of the match, showing pace, strength and skill and making life very difficult for Stryger Larsen at left-back. He put in plenty of dangerous balls, and with better finishing in the box he could have easily finished with an assist or two.
2. Aaron Mooy (Australia)
Mooy grew into the game as it progressed, working well with Jedinak to take control of the midfield and put Denmark under the pump. He was pulling the strings in most of Australia’s second half attacks, and his excellent work both on and off the ball nearly got his team over the line.
3. Pione Sisto (Denmark)
Sisto was one of Denmark’s only real threats in the second half, finding himself space on the break and using his pace to seriously test the Australian defence. He came up with a couple of dangerous efforts from distance, and seemed the only Danish player able to acquit himself well when Eriksen’s input was stifled.
4. Daniel Arzani (Australia)
Arzani is special. He has pace, skill and composure, and lifts his side when he comes on the pitch. He only had 20 minutes to make his mark after replacing the dangerous-looking but ultimately ineffective Kruse, but if his sparkling cameo isn’t enough to justify an elevation into the starting line-up it’s not clear what will be.
5. Aziz Behich (Australia)
Behich found plenty of space overlapping from left-back, putting in dangerous crosses and combining well with Kruse and then Arzani in attack. He managed to have a big attacking input without getting caught out on the break, and he will have a big say in Australia’s eventual finish at this tournament.

Resolute Australia push France to the end

What is it about the opening game? Nearing the 80 minute mark of their match against Australia, French fans everywhere would have been pondering this question, which rears its head at every major tournament. As they hadn’t in 2002, 2006 or 2010, things weren’t going to script for Les Bleus. The scores were tied, and the Australian defence was proving a significant hurdle for France’s lethal three-man attack of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé. Griezmann and Dembélé had been removed, and it wasn’t clear where the inspiration would come from.

Going into the tournament, this game was not expected to be a contest. The French came into the match as one of the favourites to take home the trophy, and the Australians didn’t seem likely to mount a stern challenge to their star-studded opponents. The game was meant to be a chance to warm into the tournament with a nice win, and maybe get the forwards some goals in the process. Early on, there was no sign that France would have too many issues. Within two minutes Mbappé was in on goal, with Mathew Ryan’s solid parry the only thing standing in his way. The first ten minutes provided the keeper with plenty more opportunities to get involved, and it only seemed a matter of time before they broke through an Australian defence that was giving up territory and being cowed by the superior skills of their opponents.

The breakthrough never came. Bert van Marwijk’s defence held firm time and again, with Trent Sainsbury leading the way and midfielders Aaron Mooy and Mile Jedinak starting to assert some control in possession. Mbappé’s early chance had looked like the start of France’s dominance. By the end of the half, the French hadn’t had a better opportunity to go ahead, and the Australians had threatened their goal a couple of times as well. Mooy’s set piece delivery was as classy as ever, and the Socceroos nearly gave the French trouble after Tom Rogic’s flick-on header was desperately saved by Hugo Lloris.

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Paul Pogba runs with the ball during the game. Pogba had a hand in both of France’s goals, and looked very dangerous in the middle of the park.

In the 81st minute, the ball was at the feet of Paul Pogba. Pogba’s potential has never been in question, but a pair of inconsistent seasons with Manchester United have frustrated those who are hoping for a realisation of his immense talent. Against the Australians, Pogba seemed to have regained some of his best form. He was working well in defence and attack, and in conjunction with French midfield boss N’Golo Kanté he had helped create France’s earlier goal. Now he had a congested field ahead of him, and it was up to the talented young star to find a way through.

With France struggling to find the scoresheet, a draw was a definite possibility. Then the much-maligned video assistant referee intervened, and France were gifted the lead. It came from a quick break, with Kanté and Pogba combining to play Griezmann in behind. Josh Risdon brought him down in the box, but play was allowed to continue for minutes before the VAR control centre in Moscow directed Andrés Cunha to take another look at it. The penalty was subsequently paid despite Australian protests, allowing Griezmann to step up and blast it past Ryan. Resolute as they had been, Australia didn’t seem to have it in them to find an equaliser.

Pogba decided to pass his way through, finding the dangerous Mbappé and following up with a run through the centre of Australia’s defence. The 19-year-old attacker had no choice but to pass it back to the powerful midfielder, and Pogba soon skilfully laid it off to substitute Olivier Giroud, who was sporting an impressive bandage around his forehead even before he entered the fray. The big striker chose to give it back, and Pogba found himself on the edge of the area within striking distance.

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Australian players argue with referee Andrés Cunha after the French received a penalty minutes after the incident. The decision was the first real controversy involving the newly-introduced VAR.

As it turned out, the Australians were level a few minutes later thanks to a remarkable brain explosion from Samuel Umtiti. Mooy’s free kick was dangerous, but the French were in a good defensive position. Then Umtiti punched it, the ball connecting with an arm that was miles away from his body. Jedinak made no error with the penalty, and suddenly the Australians were back on level terms and the pressure was back on the French to equalise. It remained to be seen whether they were up to the task, even as they kept the Australians trapped in their own half and controlled the attacking play.

Pogba had a bit of a problem. The pair of one-twos he played to get into a scoring position had left him with little room to get a full-powered shot in, and he seemed too far out to score. As a result, his shot didn’t look likely to challenge Ryan. Then Aziz Behich, sweeping in from left-back to cut off the sudden attack, put his foot in there, and the result was a shot which travelled towards the goals in a parabolic arc, well above the desperate leap of the Australian keeper. The ball hit the underside of the bar, and then appeared to bounce out as Ryan safely gathered the rebound. Unfortunately for the Socceroos, looks can be deceiving, and goal-line technology told a different story. The goal counted, France had the lead, and this time they never looked like losing it.

The Australians had a little bit of time to break through but never really looked like managing it as Kanté dominated the midfield and France continued to threaten them in attack. In the end, they had to settle for a narrow loss, but such a strong and determined performance bodes well for the tournament ahead. For the French, they will be hoping that this game is nothing more than a blip on the radar, and is not indicative of a wider trend of underperformance. As well as Australia defended Les Bleus still got the three points, and that suggests that when they find their mojo they could be very dangerous.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
France 2 (Griezmann 58 pen, Pogba 80)
Australia 1 (Jedinak 62 pen)
Referee: Andrés Cunha (Uru)
France (4-3-3): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Tolisso (Matuidi 78), Kanté, Pogba; Griezmann (Giroud 70), Mbappé, Dembélé (Fekir 70).
Australia (4-2-3-1): Ryan – Risdon, Milligan, Sainsbury, Behich; Jedinak, Mooy; Leckie, Rogic (Irvine 72), Kruse (Arzani 84); Nabbout (Juric 64).

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N’Golo Kanté (left) successfully dispossesses Robbie Kruse during his excellent performance in defensive midfield. Kanté’s hard work scuppered many of Australia’s attacks, and ensured France were in control of the game.

Top 5
1. N’Golo Kanté (France)
Kanté put in a dominant performance in the centre of the park, winning the ball away from the Australians and keeping France in control of possession. His ball use was always reliable, and he had a big hand in the first goal thanks to a pass which played Pogba into open space. The combination between him and Pogba looked very effective, and could be very tough to stop.
2. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba’s work through the middle of the ground was excellent, winning the ball when he needed to but also finding space and flourishing in the front third. He had a hand in both goals, playing the pass that led Risdon to bring Griezmann down in the box and finishing off the winner himself after creating a chance from nowhere. If this performance is any indication he could be in for a big World Cup.
3. Aaron Mooy (Australia)
Mooy’s hard work and control in the centre of the park had a huge impact, and his set piece delivery caused the French plenty of problems. He rarely misplaced a pass and performed his defensive duties as well as ever, and he indirectly created Australia’s goal with a dangerous free-kick which Umtiti decided to get a fist to. France’s defence had plenty of nervous moments thanks to his efforts.
4. Trent Sainsbury (Australia)
Sainsbury was solid as a rock in central defence, repelling attack after attack and making life very difficult for the three-pronged French attack. He fought hard whenever there was a ball to be won, and at one point he inadvertently punctured the ball with a particularly determined challenge. He more than held his own on the big stage.
5. Benjamin Pavard (France)
Pavard won the starting spot at right-back over a very good defender in Djibril Sidibé, and slotted into the team seamlessly. His defensive performance was excellent, and in addition to keeping the Australians at bay he looked fairly dangerous coming forward on the overlap. An ill-fated scissor kick volley from outside the box was a moment he’d rather forget, but otherwise he was in good form.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Final Prediction

Who will win the World Cup? As ever, it’s a complicated question, and much of the fascination of the tournament is watching the drama play out. When assessing the 32 teams’ respective chances to take home the ultimate prize, it becomes clear that these sides can be grouped based on their levels of ambition. At the top, the main contenders are set to be the ones battling it out at the end. They are the teams who historically win the tournament, and will set victory as their goal coming in. Then there’s the second-tier, or the dark horses who have a legitimate chance of winning if things fall their way. They are more consistent performers, with quality to match anyone. The wildcards are the teams that could make it as far as the semi-finals and are capable of pulling off a big upset, while the knockout hopefuls are the largely unspectacular sides setting their sights on the round of 16. The early exiters round out the competition, being the teams with no realistic chance of winning and slim hopes of progressing past the second round. This preview will touch on all of these groups, before eventually predicting the winner of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The Contenders

Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain
Thanks to the non-qualification of Italy, and a number of other factors, the usual suspects may be a bit thin on the ground in Russia. Germany will always be there at the end, as will Brazil, and both sides should be considered the top favourites going into the tournament. France are the third of the contenders with a very good chance of taking home the trophy, and their quality is undeniable. Then there’s Argentina and Spain, both of whom may struggle at the tournament after distracted preparations. Argentina’s decision to cancel a pre-tournament friendly against Israel not only left them underdone but also created a diplomatic incident. Meanwhile, Spain’s decision to sack their coach two days out from the tournament is certain to impact their results, and they will now do well to escape from a tough group.

The Dark Horses

Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
With so few of the main contenders still primed for a deep run, the door may be open for one of these sides to sneak in and buck the trend. Belgium and Poland are strong, but their runs may be hindered by the draw. If one doesn’t win their group, they may find themselves facing off in the second round. Even if Belgium, as expected, win Group G and the Poles take out Group H, quarter-final dates with Brazil (for Belgium) and Germany (for Poland) would probably finish them off. Uruguay and Portugal are probably best placed to take advantage of Spain’s woes, and both are consistent teams who are capable of going a long way.

The Wildcards

Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, England, Iceland, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal
Three of these wildcards are in Group D, where a vulnerable Argentina means that Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are not a bad chance of taking them out. Of the three, the Croatians are probably the most damaging. They are as good, if not better than, the Argentinians, and could easily pry them out of top spot. Of course, everything could fall in a heap as well, especially with their off-field concerns, but a semi-final run is not out of the question. Nigeria and Senegal are both in tough groups where they will either thrive or crash out, while Egypt could also make a splash if they can overcome Mohamed Salah’s injury issues. The turmoil surrounding Spain leaves Morocco with a chance of edging them out, and they may be a tough opponent in the knockouts. The same can be said for Iceland, and the English are unpredictable – and dangerous.

The Knockout Hopefuls

Denmark, Mexico, Peru, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland
These teams come from just three groups, and are in competition with each other. As a general rule, they shouldn’t make too much of a splash. The Swiss are the best of the teams in terms of ranking and consistency, but they may face stiff competition if Serbia are on their game. In Group C, Denmark and Peru will be an intriguing early match-up, while Mexico and Sweden are likely to fight it out for second place in Group F. None of these teams have much of a chance of winning it all, but they should be looking at the round of 16 as a realistic goal.

The Early Exiters

Australia, Costa Rica, Iran, Japan, Panama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia
To put it bluntly, these teams have no hope of winning the World Cup, and they will probably be out by the round of 16. Iran are the most talented of them, but their position in a tough group with Spain, Portugal and Morocco means progress is unlikely. Of course, Spain’s issues may leave the door open, but Morocco seem better suited to take the opportunity. The Russians are hosting the event, and of these teams they are most likely to go through. They just aren’t a very good team, however, and they’d do well to get to the second round. Australia and South Korea may just slip past their opposition and take a berth in the knockout stages, while Saudi Arabia could give their campaign a big boost with an opening game win over Russia. Costa Rica will struggle to repeat their quarter-final run of 2014, especially after declining in quality, and Tunisia’s placement alongside Belgium and England is likely to cut short their participation. Japan have plenty of off-field issues, and they will struggle in a tough group. Bringing up the rear is Panama, who are clearly the least-talented team at this tournament and will do well to bring home a point.

Looking through the draw based on my predicted outcomes for each group (with Group B changed to reflect the likelihood of Portugal finishing above Spain), the second round will consist of matches between Uruguay and Spain, Portugal and Egypt, France and Argentina, Croatia and Denmark, Brazil and Mexico, Germany and Switzerland, Belgium and Colombia and Poland and England. With these clashes in mind, Portugal, Croatia, Brazil and Germany should win fairly comfortably. Poland are too good for England, and Belgium should beat Colombia (although a match between the two would be great to watch). France are too good for Argentina, and Uruguay should be too good for Spain, if La Furia Roja even make it that far. According to these results, the quarter-finals will see Uruguay play France, Portugal take on Croatia, Brazil go up against Belgium and Germany face Poland. Once again, Brazil and Germany should be too strong, as should the French. The last match-up is an intriguing one. Croatia are probably more talented than the Portuguese, and would start as favourites, but it would be a close-run affair. In the semis, the Germans would be likely to defeat the Croatians fairly comfortably, although a mouth-watering match-up between France and Brazil shapes as one of the games of the tournament. In the end, I think France’s talent will win out in the end, and I think that Les Bleus will take out the World Cup over the Germans. One thing’s for sure: with the World Cup, you just never know. Right now, with the fun beginning in a little over 12 hours, the whole tournament is a complete mystery. Let’s hope it stays pretty mysterious right to the end.


Champions: France
Runners-up: Germany
Third Place: Brazil
Fourth Place: Croatia
Quarter-finals: Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
Round of 16: Argentina, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, England, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland
Top scorer: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Golden Ball: Neymar (Brazil)

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group C

Group C

Teams (world ranking in brackets): France (7), Australia (36), Peru (11), Denmark (12)
France vs Australia, Kazan Arena, Kazan
Peru vs Denmark, Mordovia Arena, Saransk
Denmark vs Australia, Cosmos Arena, Samara
France vs Peru, Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg
Denmark vs France, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Australia vs Peru, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi


Head Coach: Didier Deschamps
Captain: Hugo Lloris
Previous Appearances: 14 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann (4)


Goalkeepers: 1. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), 16. Steve Mandanda (Marseille), 23. Alphonse Areola (Paris Saint-Germain).
Defenders: 2. Benjamin Pavard (Stuttgart), 3. Presnel Kimpembe (Paris Saint-Germain), 4. Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid), 5. Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona), 17. Adil Rami (Marseille), 19. Djibril Sidibé (Monaco), 21. Lucas Hernández (Atlético Madrid), 22. Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City).
Midfielders: 6. Paul Pogba (Manchester United), 8. Thomas Lemar (Monaco), 12. Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich), 13. N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea), 14. Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), 15. Steven N’Zonzi (Sevilla).
Forwards: 7. Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid), 9. Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), 10. Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain), 11. Ousmane Dembélé (Barcelona), 18. Nabil Fekir (Lyon), 20. Florian Thauvin (Marseille).

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Antoine Griezmann bows to supporters after France’s semi-final win over Germany at Euro 2016. Griezmann scored twice in the match on his way to becoming the tournament’s top-scorer.

After coming incredibly close to winning at home in Euro 2016 (they were edged out in extra time by Portugal) the French didn’t have too many issues booking their spot in Russia as their quality allowed them to stay well ahead of their misfiring opposition. Now they’re here, Les Bleus will be incredibly hard to beat. Coach Didier Deschamps has selection quandaries in just about every position. Hugo Lloris is one of the few guaranteed starters, and the experienced goalkeeper will be hard to get past. Shielding him is a back four consisting of some top-level defenders, with centre-backs Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti both proven performers. In midfield, Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea) and Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich) will compete for three spots, with one of them stiff to miss out. Meanwhile an attack of Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé and young gun Kylian Mbappé (plus a couple of others) is likely to terrorise opposing defences with pace and skill. Perhaps the scariest thing about Deschamps’ side is, with 15 players aged 25 or less, they’re still peaking.

The French did, however, come off a qualifying campaign that was not all smooth sailing. A 50-yard winner from Ola Toivonen led to an embarrassing loss to Sweden, and they were held by minnows Belarus and Luxembourg along the way. Such lapses could prove costly in the World Cup, where they can’t just wait and let their quality assert itself. Many of their players haven’t featured at the World Cup before, and this dangerous combination of inexperience and expectation could prove costly. They still lack a top-class full-back on either side, and none of Benjamin Pavard, Djibril Sidibé, Lucas Hernández or Benjamin Mendy have much international experience. Since winning the World Cup in 1998, France’s efforts in the tournament have been inconsistent, and it would not be unheard of for them to collapse out of the blue.

Star Player: Antoine Griezmann

Griezmann is coming into his prime, and the diminutive striker can make a big impact in Russia. He is a complete forward who has pace, skill, an eye for goal and the ability to create chances for his teammates. His six goals at Euro 2016 helped take the French to the final, and with a more dynamic attack alongside him at the World Cup he could be an unstoppable force.

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Paul Pogba shoots during a World Cup qualifying match against Sweden. Pogba has struggled since joining Manchester United, amid questions over his best position.

Key Player: Paul Pogba

How do you solve a problem like Paul Pogba? Two seasons ago, the powerfully built central midfielder was the hottest commodity in European football, and attracted the heftiest transfer fee in history to move from Juventus to Manchester United. Since then, he’s been…alright. His physicality can overshadow his immense technical ability, and he can hit the scoresheet while simultaneously providing assists. If he plays at his best, he could carry France to the World Cup. Will he?

One to watch: Kylian Mbappé

It turns out Mbappé’s remarkable breakout season with Monaco was no fluke, and that’s bad news for all of France’s opponents. At just 19, he is coming off his first season with Paris Saint-Germain, where his scoring barely dropped off despite the quality of his new teammates. For France, he is likely to play on the right wing, but he is capable in the centre and will be very dangerous.


This French team is exciting and a very dangerous opponent. There is a ridiculous amount of talent all over the park, and if they can convert that talent into results they could cruise to a second World Cup title.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Lloris; Sidibé, Umtiti, Varane, Mendy; Kanté, Matuidi, Pogba; Mbappé, Griezmann, Dembélé.


Head Coach: Bert van Marwijk
Captain: Mile Jedinak
Previous Appearances: 4 (1974, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (2006)
Qualified: AFC, 3rd Group B (beat Syria and Honduras in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Tim Cahill (11)


Goalkeepers: 1. Mathew Ryan (Brighton and Hove Albion), 12. Brad Jones (Feyenoord), 18. Danny Vukovic (Genk).
Defenders: 2. Milos Degenek (Yokohama F. Marinos), 3. James Meredith (Millwall), 5. Mark Milligan (Al-Ahli), 6. Matthew Jurman (Suwon Samsung Bluewings), 16. Aziz Behich (Bursaspor), 19. Josh Risdon (Western Sydney Wanderers), 20. Trent Sainsbury (Grasshoppers).
Midfielders: 8. Massimo Luongo (Queens Park Rangers), 13. Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town), 15. Mile Jedinak (Aston Villa), 17. Daniel Arzani (Melbourne City), 22. Jackson Irvine (Hull City), 23. Tom Rogic (Celtic).
Forwards: 4. Tim Cahill (Millwall), 7. Matthew Leckie (Hertha Berlin), 9. Tomi Juric (Luzern), 10. Robbie Kruse (VfL Bochum), 11. Andrew Nabbout (Urawa Red Diamonds), 14. Jamie Maclaren (Hibernian), 21. Dimitri Petratos (Newcastle Jets).

If it’s all about the journey, then Australia haven’t had a great World Cup experience. Their journey was about as hard as it gets, spanning 22 matches and proving a hard slog at every turn. Then their coach resigned. Bert van Marwijk is still getting used to his new side after taking over from Ange Postecoglou, but the Dutchman has pedigree at this level and can get the side in shape. On the pitch, there’s plenty to like. Aaron Mooy is coming off a brilliant season with Huddersfield Town in the Premier League, and he can unlock defences with his remarkable vision. He will be well supported by captain Mile Jedinak and Massimo Luongo in midfield, and Tom Rogic is a dangerous player in attack. Mathew Ryan is a solid goalkeeper, and will be well protected by classy centre-back Trent Sainsbury. In-form attackers Andrew Nabbout and Daniel Arzani will give the team a fresh edge alongside Matthew Leckie and Robbie Kruse, and Tim Cahill is a talisman who can find big goals.

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Tim Cahill rises to score against Syria in World Cup qualifying. Cahill is no longer a regular part of the starting line-up, but the veteran still has an impact off the bench.

The Australians will, however, face an uphill battle to make it through. Postecoglou’s sudden departure has left a void even though his attack at all costs strategy was part of the reason for the Socceroos’ arduous road to Russia. Adding to the pressure on van Marwijk is the temporary nature of his position (Graham Arnold will take over after the World Cup), and this could impact results. In a tough group, Australia’s defence is unproven, and van Marwijk has little time to add the steel the side desperately lacked in qualifying. It is unclear who the team’s best striker is, with Tomi Juric developing a propensity for missing chances and Cahill coming off a season where he barely played for either Melbourne City or Millwall. This missing link means the brilliant work of Mooy is often wasted, something Australia cannot afford to happen if they want to take it up to giants like France.

Star Player: Aaron Mooy

Mooy’s first season in the Premier League has shown he is more than capable of adjusting to high-level competition, and his hard work in midfield may well be Australia’s only chance of escaping a tough group. His ability to pick out an incisive pass rivals some of the best playmakers at this World Cup, and he is a set-piece specialist who can hit the target from range and reads the play well.

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Aaron Mooy (right) and Mile Jedinak celebrate after Jedinak’s goal against Honduras in Australia’s final qualifier. Mooy and Jedinak will be a key part of Australia’s campaign.

Key Player: Mile Jedinak

Jedinak was Australia’s second-highest scorer in qualifying (showing the benefits of being a regular penalty taker) but his defensive qualities are far more important. Jedinak has plenty of experience and is almost never caught out of position, allowing him to clean up counter-attacks with ease. His work as a holding midfielder will be a crucial part of Australia’s defensive set-up in Russia.

One to watch: Daniel Arzani

Arzani hadn’t played for Australia before his call-up to the World Cup squad, but the 19-year-old winger is coming off a brilliant season for Melbourne City and could well be the spark the Socceroos need. He is quick, skilled and has the ability to provide for his teammates, and he has the potential to shine at this World Cup if given the opportunity.


Most of the 2006 golden generation is now gone, and van Marwijk’s younger team has some established players in European teams. Whether that will be enough is another question, and the Socceroos need their stars to fire.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Ryan; Risdon, Sainsbury, Milligan, Behich; Jedinak, Luongo; Leckie, Mooy, Kruse; Nabbout.


Head Coach: Ricardo Gareca
Captain: Paolo Guerrero
Previous Appearances: 4 (1930, 1970, 1978, 1982)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1970)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 5th (beat New Zealand in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Paolo Guerrero (6)


Goalkeepers: 1. Pedro Gallese (Veracruz), 12. Carlos Cáceda (Deportivo Municipal), 21. José Carvallo (UTC).
Defenders: 2. Alberto Rodríguez (Junior), 3. Aldo Corzo (Universitario de Deportes), 4. Anderson Santamaría (Puebla), 5. Miguel Araujo (Allianza Lima), 6. Miguel Trauco (Flamengo), 15. Christian Ramos (Veracruz), 17. Luis Advíncula (Lobos BUAP), 22. Nilson Loyola (Melgar).
Midfielders: 7. Paolo Hurtado (Vitória de Guimarães), 8. Christian Cueva (São Paulo), 13. Renato Tapia (Feyenoord), 14. Andy Polo (Portland Timbers), 16. Wilder Cartagena (Veracruz), 18. André Carrillo (Watford), 19. Yoshimar Yotún (Orlando City), 20. Edison Flores (AaB), 23. Pedro Aquino (Lobos BUAP).
Forwards: 9. Paolo Guerrero (Flamengo), 10. Jefferson Farfán (Lokomotiv Moscow), 11. Raúl Ruidíaz (Morelia).

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Jefferson Farfán celebrates after scoring in Peru’s play-off with New Zealand. Farfán will be a key member of the Peruvian attack in Russia.

In March last year, the idea of Peru breaking their 36-year World Cup drought was inconceivable. They sat eighth in South America, and needed a miracle to progress to their first tournament since 1982. They got it, taking 11 points from their last five games and picking up another three after a previous loss to Bolivia was overturned. In the end, they snuck into the play-offs, where progression against New Zealand was never in doubt. Since qualification, the good news has continued to flow. Captain and all-time leading scorer Paolo Guerrero’s doping ban has been stayed, allowing him to take the field in Russia. His presence will add to an attack that already includes dangerous wingers Jefferson Farfán and André Carrillo. Yoshimar Yotún and Renato Tapia provide a solid central midfield presence, and Ricardo Gareca has put together a tight-knit group that has not lost a game since 2016. They are solid all over the park, and they could make an impact.

The Peruvians will, however, suffer from a lack of experience at the top-level. Their competition with other South American teams will serve them well at the tournament proper, but a lack of players in Europe’s top leagues could be an issue. The World Cup will come with much greater pressure than anything the players have ever faced, and this could test the bonds that have built up in the last 18 months. The distractions surrounding Guerrero’s court cases (in the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the Swiss Federal Court) could also affect the squad, especially with the drama hanging around for as long as it has. In general, Peru are short on quality around the park, especially with key players Guerrero and Farfán both past their respective primes. This was reflected in their start to qualifying, during a campaign which didn’t get off the ground until their frenetic final run. If they are to progress, they will need their defence to step up in a big way.

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Captain Paolo Guerrero sings the national anthem before a qualifier against Colombia. Guerrero was suspended for the World Cup, but his ban has since been stayed to allow him to play in Russia.

Star Player: Paolo Guerrero

After a lengthy legal saga, Guerrero is free to play in Russia. The 34-year-old has been an inspirational leader for Peru, and such is his popularity that news of his impending suspension spurred protests in the streets of Lima. He has scored more international goals than any other Peruvian, and his presence at the World Cup will have a big impact on the team.

Key Player: Christian Ramos

Ramos, along with Alberto Rodríguez, has a key role to play in the Peruvian defence. He is a proven performer with 66 caps’ worth of international experience, and his solidity at the back underpins Peru’s success. If they are to progress to the knockout stages in Russia, Ramos and the rest of the defence will need to be at their best.

One to watch: Renato Tapia

Tapia is a versatile player who has featured prominently for Peru since making his debut as a 19-year-old in 2015. Now 22, Tapia is a key part of Peru’s midfield, and has the ability to play in defence if required. His experiences with Feyenoord in both the Dutch top flight and European competition will serve the Peruvians well as they look to make their mark.


Peru may struggle to progress, but they have good team unity and Gareca is an excellent coach. With talisman Guerrero free to play, they could be a dangerous opponent.
Likely Team: Gallese; Advíncula, Rodríguez, Ramos, Trauco; Yotún, Tapia; Carrillo, Cueva, Farfán; Guerrero.


Head Coach: Åge Hareide
Captain: Simon Kjær
Previous Appearances: 4 (1986, 1998, 2002, 2010)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 2nd Group E (beat Republic of Ireland in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Christian Eriksen (11)


Goalkeepers: 1. Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester City), 16. Jonas Lössl (Huddersfield Town), 22. Frederik Rønnow (Brøndby).
Defenders: 3. Jannik Vestergaard (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 4. Simon Kjær (Sevilla), 5. Jonas Knudsen (Ipswich Town), 6. Andreas Christensen (Chelsea), 13. Mathias Jørgensen (Huddersfield Town), 14. Henrik Dalsgaard (Brentford), 17. Jens Stryger Larsen (Udinese).
Midfielders: 2. Michael Krohn-Dehli (Deportivo La Coruña), 7. William Kvist (Copenhagen), 8. Thomas Delaney (Werder Bremen), 10. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur), 18. Lukas Lerager (Bordeaux), 19. Lasse Schöne (Ajax).
Forwards: 9. Nicolai Jørgensen (Copenhagen), 11. Martin Braithwaite (Bordeaux), 12. Kasper Dolberg (Ajax), 15. Viktor Fischer (Copenhagen), 20. Yussuf Poulsen (Leipzig), 21. Andreas Cornelius (Atalanta), 23. Pione Sisto (Celta Vigo).

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Christian Eriksen celebrates one of the goals in his hat-trick during the last game of World Cup qualifying. Eriksen was Denmark’s leading scorer, and he is their best player.

Denmark travelled to Dublin for their last game of qualifying needing a win to progress to Russia, and Christian Eriksen stepped up with a brilliant hat-trick to send them through. Eriksen has gone from strength to strength in the last few years, and the attacking midfielder has developed into one of the world’s best. His creative talents mixed with a dangerous attack of Nicolai Jørgensen, Yussuf Poulsen and Andreas Cornelius will make for a potent mix. The rise of young guns Pione Sisto and Kasper Dolberg only adds to the depth at Åge Hareide’s disposal, and the Danish should not be short on goals. Down back, Simon Kjær and Andreas Christensen are a solid centre-back pairing backed up by quality defenders in Jannik Vestergaard and Mathias Jørgensen, and Kasper Schmeichel is a tough player to beat in goal. With a pair of strong holding midfielders in William Kvist and Thomas Delaney holding the team together, the Danish will be a very tough side to face.

There are some problems that Hareide will need to solve, however. The full-back situation is a major worry, with no clear starter on either side of the defence. Jens Stryger Larsen, Jonas Knudsen and Henrik Dalsgaard are all options, but none of them have made a spot in the side their own. The problems got so bad that Christensen was shifted to right-back for the all-important second leg of the play-offs, a scenario which is far from ideal. There are some issues in midfield, and while Kvist and Delaney are both imposing players in defence they can struggle to transition into attack. This is combined with a potential over-reliance on Eriksen, who scored nearly half of Denmark’s goals in qualifying. None of Hareide’s potential attacking options at the World Cup contributed more than two, and this could spell trouble if the side’s creative fulcrum is shut down.

Star Player: Christian Eriksen

Eriksen has developed from a classy playmaker to a bona-fide superstar in the last couple of years, and his hat-trick in the decisive qualifying game dragged Denmark into the final tournament. He has incredible vision, brilliant technical ability and the ability to provide a goal-scoring threat from distance, and he can be tough to stop if he gets going. He could be the player that sets Denmark apart in a competitive group.

Key Player: Thomas Delaney

Delaney has the potential to make an impact in both attack and defence, and he showcased his skills in qualifying with a hat-trick against Armenia. He has been in good form since moving to Werder Bremen, and Denmark will be relying on him to provide a strong midfield presence and give Eriksen some much-needed support in Russia. If he plays at his best, the Danes will be a formidable side.

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Thomas Delaney (right) battles for the ball during a friendly against Germany. Delaney will be a key player in the Danish midfield at the World Cup.

One to watch: Kasper Dolberg

Dolberg is a dangerous attacker who knows how to find the back of the net, and at just 20 he has a big future ahead. His performances this season weren’t quite as impressive as his first season at Ajax, but the versatile frontman has tremendous upside and can add something extra to the Danish attack. He could be the x-factor for Denmark in Russia, and he has the talent to make an impact.


Denmark are a solid side all over the park with few glaring weaknesses, and they will be a hard team to beat. If Eriksen gets going and things fall their way, they could make a run into the knockout stages.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Schmeichel; Dalsgaard, Kjær, Christensen, Larsen; Delaney, Kvist; Poulsen, Eriksen, Sisto; Jørgensen.


This group should be fairly tight, although the French are likely to go through comfortably barring a sudden and calamitous collapse (it can never be ruled out). For the rest, it is an intriguing race. Denmark are a solid side with established players, while Peru and Australia are largely unknown quantities heading into the tournament. The Australians are unlikely to make an impact without a big improvement defensively, and the match between the Danish and the Peruvians may be the one to watch. The Danish look like the best of the chasing pack, and the class of Eriksen may just separate them from their rivals. If anyone can take points off the French, they will probably move into the box seat.
1. France, 2. Denmark, 3. Peru, 4. Australia

The Problems with Australian Cricket: Part 5

As shown in the previous entries in this series, there are some serious systemic problems facing Australian cricket, and no quick fix is going to solve them. Instead, the road to recovery will take time, short-term pain and investment in youth, both through promotion and development. The Sheffield Shield needs to become a competitive breeding ground for the Test side, allowing the best young players to be ready to take opportunities at a higher level. The pathways to the Shield also need improvement, with less involvement from the states and more cricket being played by developing players. The key to fixing this current rut, however, can be found in history.

The selectors took the first logical step in picking their team for the Adelaide Test, backing young players in Matt Renshaw, Peter Handscomb and Nic Maddinson. This must continue, although Maddinson must prove that he is a better option at six than Travis Head if he is to proceed. Full of this fresh influence, the bowlers stepped up once again in the dead rubber, and the batsmen finally fired to grant Australia their first Test match win since February. This cannot be the expected level of performance from this young side. History has shown that rebuilds can only work with patience, and the selectors, the fans and the higher levels of Cricket Australia need to recognise this and stick to their guns, regardless of short-term results.

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Victory: Matt Renshaw (front) and Peter Handscomb seal victory for Australia against South Africa in Adelaide.

Over the course of the upcoming Test matches against Pakistan, the selectors must find the side with the most potential, and find the batting line-up that best suits their need for a stable base in years to come. Then they need to back them to the hilt. Their most recent opponents, South Africa, provide a perfect example. They have turned over their side to replace legends of the game like Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, identifying a young replacement early on and sticking with them. Temba Bavuma and Dean Elgar are players who were promoted by this policy, and both have turned into excellent Test cricketers, while not as good as their predecessors. In the mid-1980s, Australia did the same thing, sparking a dominance which lasted for decades. In the midst of a crisis, Allan Border built his side around youth, with players like Steve Waugh, Mark Taylor and Ian Healy coming through the ranks in the next few years. The parallels to this situation are striking, although Border’s Australian team had just gone through the retirements of three of Australia’s greatest ever players (in the same match) and the sudden resignation of Kim Hughes as captain after a series of consecutive losses stretching back much further than the side of today.

The lessons to be learnt from this are twofold. Firstly, it shows that it works. It also provides a word of warning. This will take time. Young players do not just become world-class cricketers from their first game, and this batch of players needs time to develop. Against Pakistan, it is highly likely that they will play well. The Pakistanis are coming off a very poor series in New Zealand, and while the conditions there bear no comparison to those in Australia it never helps to come into a series with batsmen low on confidence and fielders who can’t hold a catch. The real test of the selectors commitment will not come following the Sydney Test: it will be India, where the young side will not stand a chance. They will lose the series to a strong, set, Indian side, with the best spinner in the world and the best batsman in the world leading the charge. India can pile on runs on their spin-friendly wickets, while rolling Australia with ease. It may seem negative, but Australia do not stand a chance.

Everyone needs to understand that this will work, and that once young players are backed and allowed to develop they will become better Test cricketers. They need to trust these players to come through, and have faith that their gamble will pay off. With the Ashes coming up next summer, against a very strong English side, there will be grumbles about selection if India, as expected, romp home to a series win. But once the selectors settle on a young side, there can be no going back. They have started on the long, winding and painful road to recovery. Only time will tell whether they can stay the path.

The Problems with Australian Cricket: Part 4

After Australia’s massive losses to South Africa in Hobart and Perth, all eyes turned to the competition which was to provide the saviours for Australia’s struggling team. The Sheffield Shield, which has run for well over a century, has for a long time been a hotbed of talented players looking to force their way into the Test team. It is nowhere near that level anymore.

In fact, the effects of trialling different balls, formats and rules in the Sheffield Shield could be seen earlier this year, when the Australian ODI side turned to some new blood to replenish their bowling stocks in South Africa. Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood were rested (although Starc later cut his leg on a training stump) and in their place came the best domestic cricket had to offer: Joe Mennie, Chris Tremain, Scott Boland and Daniel Worrall. It was a disaster. Mennie conceded the worst figures by an Australian bowler on ODI debut, and Tremain, making his first start in the same game, was not far behind. South Africa monstered the Australian attack, in one game chasing a mammoth target of 372 with relative ease. This, more than anything else that has happened over the last month, showed just how unready the best players in the Shield are for international cricket.

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Development: The Sheffield Shield is no longer up to scratch.

The problems are present in more ways than one. Firstly, there is a dearth of international quality players playing in the Shield, making the jump to Test level a massive one. This is coupled by the culture which has developed of the Shield as a factory line for new innovations, such as pink-ball cricket, the use of the Duke ball to replicate English conditions, and more. Furthermore, the Futures League has further stunted the ability of players to transition into Shield cricket easily, and a move away from results-based pitches has created further problems. These issues have combined to create a competition which does not allow for the depth of international cricketers needed for a healthy Test team, and has left the Shield struggling for relevance.

For a start, the level of competition at Shield level simply isn’t good enough. Test players play one, maybe two games per season, and the injury fears (and actual injuries) surrounding Australia’s best pacemen means that the bowling attacks served up in the Shield are not overly dangerous and nothing like what a prospective international would face at the highest level. From a bowling perspective, the batting quality is not particularly high due to a number of factors, not least the fact that Australia’s batting depth isn’t particularly strong. The fact that imports are not allowed in the Shield also hurts, and while many may argue that young Australian players should be taking precedence the introduction of overseas players would trump up competition on two levels. Firstly, by making it harder for local players to find a spot in the team, it would mean that those who get into the side are performing well. Furthermore, such a policy would provide high-class players, giving young players a chance to face international-level opponents. The quality of the Shield needs to be increased, or else Australian cricket will struggle to find the depth it needs.

Another key problem is the experimental nature of the Shield. While well-intentioned, trials of different coloured balls, among other things, have detracted from the main purpose of the Shield as a feeder for the Test team. This, combined with the Futures League (which was designed to promote youth and prepare them for the Shield but did neither) has hurt not only the reputation of the Shield but its ability to produce good players. In the end, however, telling groundsmen to prepare flat tracks for all matches, as Cricket Australia did, proved the ultimate mistake. This is what has led to Australia’s struggles overseas, and it has made it hard for bowlers, however good they may be, to take the wickets needed to break into the side.

A healthy feeder competition is the key to a strong team, something which Australia do not have. If they are to recover from their current woes, they need to bolster the Shield, providing good-quality opposition and making it harder for both batsmen and bowlers to perform at their best. The Shield has fallen from any kind of relevance in recent years, and this trend needs to be reversed.

Next time: With all the problems clearly on the table, I take a look at the path Australian cricket needs to take to rectify its current issues.

The Problems with Australian Cricket: Part 3

Yesterday, I looked at how the Australian selectors have consistently looked past long-term options, instead finding quick fixes which have only amplified the current problems. However, while it is all well and good to talk about the need for an injection of youth, we also must ask: where is this youthful support coming from? The academy system is not the same as it used to be, and Australian cricket has suffered as a result. Young players no longer receive the same exposure against top quality opposition, and a cut in government funding to the Australian Institute of Sport has dealt a massive blow to the system.

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Prodigy: South Africa’s Kagiso Rabada is an example of how a thriving youth system can operate.

The problem with the broken system, which has largely been struggling due to the increased influence of the states on academy prospects, is that it increases the time players must spend in the Sheffield Shield before they are ready for international cricket. It is increasingly rare to see a player starting out in the Shield with brilliant results, and while the introduction of the Big Bash League has given young players a chance to face up against the world’s best, this does not do much to appease the issues facing the Test team. Academy tours, which gave graduates a brilliant chance to gain an experience to play as a team and gain a taste of top-level cricket, have been discontinued for some time, a decision which has led to Australia’s drop in results at international youth tournaments and has seriously harmed the system.

If the Australians want to see an example of a thriving system, they need look no further than their opponents in their current Test series, South Africa. Kagiso Rabada and Quinton de Kock, who are now key members of the current side, have both come through the youth system very recently, with Rabada forming part of South Africa’s victorious under-19 team in 2014. If Australia are serious about finding a long-term solution to their current woes, this is what they need to strive for. They need to reinvest in the youth system, giving their players more chances to play (something which would also reduce the injuries to young bowlers which currently plague the team) and back it to come through with results. It will, as with any part of a rebuild, take time, but it is necessary if Australian cricket is to recover.

Cricket Australia seem to have worked this out, and they have taken some good steps in the right direction. A rebuild of this magnitude will certainly take time, but it will have massive long-term effects on the health of the game in Australia and on the results of the Australian cricket team. If the disasters of the last few months are not enough to prompt this kind of change, then nothing ever will.

The Problems with Australian Cricket: Part 2

In 2013, after a catastrophic tour of India, it seemed as if Australian cricket was at its lowest ebb. There were widespread cultural problems, and the team was coming of a tour of India in which they failed to come close to beating their opponents. From that point on, and certainly during a home Ashes whitewash of England, it looked like the team had turned a corner. A couple of months later, they won in South Africa and were recognised as the best Test team in the world. But were they?

In fact, the selectors and all involved in Australian cricket chose the wrong path after the humiliating drubbing suffered in India. Instead of trying for a long-term solution to the problems, they came up with a quick fix which has only made things worse three years down the track. A closer look at that Ashes team, which went through the series unchanged, shows an ageing group of players who came up against an awful English team and smashed them. They had a good team, as shown by their victory over South Africa months later, but most of the players in that side are now retired. Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle formed an ageing attack which soon broke apart, and five members of the top seven in that series are also gone from the Test arena.

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Crisis: Australian players congregate during South Africa’s innings in Hobart.

In this way, the serendipity of the summer of 2013-14, in which Australia came up against and promptly savaged a weak opponent and surged to number one, did more long-term harm than good. The success of the Rogers experiment (the selection of older players to provide stability) also led to issues, with the selectors choosing older players like Adam Voges over younger options. While it was noble to select players who had been overlooked for too long, like Rogers and Voges (although why Michael Klinger was not included as part of this policy is still baffling) it did nothing for the long term health of the game in Australia. The search for overnight success, which was made official to the point of being placed in contracts, has gone on for far too long, and the achievement of that success has allowed the selectors to overlook the collapses which still plagued the winning Ashes side of 2013-14 (although back then Brad Haddin was always there to save the day) and the fast rising average age of the team.

The selection of Callum Ferguson for the Hobart Test, a 31-year-old who was not necessarily kicking the door down, was yet another chapter in this prioritisation of experience over youth. Ferguson was not even the best batsman in South Australia at the time of his selection. In fact, he was chosen over a teammate who is 22, scores more runs, is the captain of the Redbacks, has played ODI cricket for Australia and can bowl part time off-spin. That man, Travis Head, would have been an ideal selection if the selectors wanted to add a young star to the side, a player with the potential to be a middle order stalwart in years to come. They didn’t, making the same mistake once again.

Efforts of 85 and 161 in Hobart have cut Australian cricket to its very core, exposing all the issues that the win-now attitude has created. There is no longer any youth in the Australian set-up, and with current stars such as David Warner edging closer and closer towards retirement, the selectors need to start working on a team which will stand the test of time. Those at the head of Australian cricket seem to have finally recognised that quick fixes are no longer the answer. The question is whether they will still think that in a few months’ time, when the curtains will be drawn on a tour of India which, based on recent history, is not likely to succeed.

Next time: Where are all the young players? How the youth system has not come through.

The Problems with Australian Cricket: Part 1

Australian cricket is in crisis. The batting line-up has developed a disturbing tendency to fall like a house of cards when the going gets tough, and in the second Test match against South Africa, in Hobart, they lost by an innings at home for the first time since 2011 (that loss, against England at the SCG, prompted a root-and-branch review of Australian cricket). Unfortunately, that review has not helped. Forget the fact that Australia were number one in the world earlier this year: these problems have been around for a very long time. In this five-part series I will look at all the problems which currently engulf Australian cricket, before looking at what is the only sustainable solution to a systemic problem.

The first issue is at the selection table, and it dates back to the Ashes series of 2006-07. By the end of that series, a 5-0 whitewash of England at home, four legends of Australian cricket had retired, including the country’s two leading Test wicket-takers of all time. Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden followed them the year after, and by 2009 that core of legends was all but gone. The result? Years of experimentation. When Shane Warne, Australia’s leading Test wicket-taker, retired it was Stuart MacGill who was meant to pick up the slack and mentor the spinner of the future. Instead, he retired prematurely, prompting a revolving door of spin bowlers which lasted for years. Names such as Beau Casson, Jason Krejza, Bryce McGain, Nathan Hauritz and even Cameron White (a specialist batsman from Victoria) found themselves in the team as the selectors tried to find the next Warne.

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Pressure: David Warner survives an lbw appeal as South Africa close in.

This example shows the crux of the problem. During the era of Warne, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer, Hayden, Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting (who continued until 2012), Australia had one of the best teams in the history of cricket, possibly matched only by three (the West Indies over a twenty-year period, the Australian team of 1948 and the South African team of the late 1960s). After that team broke up, the selectors have tried to replace the players with more legends, and have quickly lost patience with anyone they don’t think will reach that level, an impossible qualification. This list of players who were never really given a shot includes Alex Doolan, who was unluckily dropped after a catastrophic Test in the UAE and replaced at number three by Glenn Maxwell, Jackson Bird, a bowler who has bowled well every time he is given a chance, and, to an extent, Usman Khawaja, who has been in and out since his debut in 2011. For every Bird, however, there has always been an Ashton Agar in the wings, players who keep getting opportunities, time and time again.

Agar is a perfect example of a selection gone wrong. His stunning Test debut, in which he scored 98 batting at number 11, was misleading: his problem, given that he had been chosen as a bowler, was that his bowling was not up to scratch. His two Tests in the 2013 Ashes clearly showed this, but he has still bounced back into the team on a number of occasions, with little success. Contrast this to Bird, who has barely set a foot wrong when he has been picked but has too often been injured or just not picked in favour of other options. The most recent example came when he was not picked in Perth because his batting was ‘not good enough’. Bird is a number 11 batsman. The selectors’ inability to stick with some players and give them a proper chance has led to a situation such as this, where just four of Australia’s eleven players from Hobart are safe for the Adelaide Test. One of those four, batsman and captain Steve Smith, was found by chance, initially picked as a leg-spinning all-rounder.

Australia need to find a set team, and more importantly, a set top six, before they can continue to move forward. The selectors can begin to solve this problem with some brave forward-thinking, but I wouldn’t count on it. For years, a player who has failed in a couple of games (barring Shane Watson, of course) has been dropped from the team and disappeared. This has done Australia no good, and we can only hope that Hobart was the nadir. It certainly doesn’t seem possible for it to get any worse. There are players from Hobart who should not be in the Test team, and we can only hope their replacements get the same chances.

Next time: Why recent successes have done more harm than good.