Aussies may take weak side to Asian Cup game

Australia's No 2 coach, Graham Arnold, has declared himself ready to take the reins for the Socceroo's first Asian Cup match on 22 February. Head coach, Guus Hiddink, is reported to be "almost certainly unavailable" because of commitments with PSV Eindhoven in the UEFA Champions League or UEFA Cup.

According to David Lewis in the Daily Telegraph, Australia's top players are also likely to be missing from an Asian Cup qualifier that falls outside designated FIFA dates on foreign soil "strengthening the hand of clubs that are reluctant to release Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill, Vince Grella and the rest".

With the match also falling within the four-team A-League finals and with Football Federation Australia expressing a preference that call-ups to local players also be kept to a minimum to protect the integrity of the series, "that only leaves players from the three locally based clubs not involved in the playoffs, plus European-based fringe Socceroos eager to stake their World Cup claims in what Arnold describes as a 'banana skin' match. It could provide a chance for foreign-based players Ljubo Milicevic, Jon McKain, Michael Thwaite, Mile Sterjovski and Joel Griffiths."

Australia will kick off in Asian competition in the lowest (fourth) tier of rankings. On current FIFA rankings, Australia (49) is headed by only four Asian teams, but despite this will start life alongside minnows such as Guam, Macau, Brunei, and Afghanistan. Thus it could, in theory, be drawn against nations such as Japan, China or Iran (top seeds), South Korea, Iraq or Saudi Arabia (second seeds) and United Arab Emirates, Syria and Lebanon (third seeds).

"We will start in the fourth tier, and we accept that," FFA chief executive John O'Neill told Michael Cockerill of the Sydney Morning Herald. "They consider us a new team, and, therefore, like all new teams we will start without a ranking. It means we have to work our way up from the bottom, and while that may make life a little bit difficult at the start, that's what we'll do."

Australia has to exert caution if it approaches its first Asian Cup rounds with a weakened side, even if their opponent is well down in rankings.

In 1981 Australia played Indonesia in Jakarta in an Oceania Group preliminary of the 1982 FIFA World Cup. Having beat Indonesia 2-0 in the first round in Melbourne, Socceroo coach Les Scheinflug did not take his best players on the away trip.

On 30 August, before a 25,000 crowd, Indonesian coach Witarsa saw his side (Purwono, Simson Rumahpasal, Didik Darmadi, H.Asnan, Riono Asnan, Herry Kiswanto, Hadi Ismanto, Abdulrachman Gurning, Risdianto, Rully Nere, Daniel Sirey) take down the Australians 1-0, knocking them out of Oceania Group contention.

The draw for the 2007 Asian Cup will occur at AFC House on 4 January and will place each of the participating nations - Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Korea Republic, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Yemen - into groups of four teams.

Only the top-two sides from each group will qualify for the prestigious 16-nation Asian Cup tournament which will be played across Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam in July 2007.