Holger Osieck remains conservative; Tomi Juric deserves a start; and the Socceroos' defence needs to shape up
Two, nine, 11 – figures not from the upper reaches of the Australian cricket team's scorecard but the numbers of respective changes made by China, South Korea and Japan to their starting line-ups for the second round of games at the East Asian Cup. Australia made zero. Perhaps it was due to the fact that after three months without competitive football, coach Holger Osieck wanted to give his team, outplayed by South Korea in the opening match, another chance to show what they can do, perhaps it was because he felt that Japan would be too strong to experiment against or perhaps he doesn't really feel that the others in his squad are ever going to make the plane to Brazi anyway, l so why bother?
But it was the substitutes that were the catalysts for the second half fightback on a hot and humid Hwaseong evening. Mitch Nicholls came on and put himself about in and around the penalty area, setting up the first and changing the whole dynamic of the Aussie team. Then came Tomi Juric. He had been compared to Mark Viduka in the build-up to this game, and the Western Sydney Wanderers striker fired home as majestically from the edge of the area as the big man ever did – with his first touch too. If that doesn't earn a start against China on Sunday, nothing will.
Australia drew against South Korea five days previously but despite losing in Hwaseong, this was a much better display. That is not much of a compliment as any kind of performance at all would have been an improvement. In the end, Japan were deserved winners but Australia started and ended the game positively.
The Socceroos looked more dangerous in the first 10 minutes of this match than they did in the whole 90 in Seoul five days previously.
In contrast to the opening game when the Koreans pushed Australia back from the offset, the Japanese dropped off and allowed the Socceroos to keep the ball and create some kind of rhythm and maintain some kind of possession – albeit of the non-threatening kind.
Mitch Duke and Dario Vidosic led by example from the front in pressing the opposition but once Japan's midfield pairing of Hideto Takahashi and Takahiro Ogihara started to take control, it all changed. Yet it is credit to the Socceroos that after going 2-0 down, they managed to get back in the game and enjoyed a very promising last 20 minutes or so.
Japan blew a two-goal lead for the third time in the space of six week but this time managed to recover. After conceding 12 goals in the last four games, winning one in the last eight and throwing away a commanding position against China four days previously, it was a welcome victory.
Against Australia, the starting XI was completely changed but while the faces may be new – with just 18 caps between them – the style is the same. Just like the China game, they started slowly before taking control to play the Japanese way. Compact, organised and increasingly slick, this most rookie-like of international teams soon got on top and were the better team for the majority of the match against a much more experienced opposition.
The strikes were delightful. Manabu Saito likes to score good goals and delivered a first-half beauty. Running across the Aussie backline, he showed the ball to the entire defence without ever looking in danger of losing it. Jade North bit, the others shied away and not even Eugene Galekovic could stop the delightful reverse chip that sailed into the far corner. The build up for the second contained a flick, a dummy and a cool Yuya Osako finish.
In a football sense, the Japanese are lovers, not fighters and always leave their opponents with a chance. Australia pulled one back and suddenly the defence was all over the place. This increasingly familiar drama ended happily this time for Samurai Blue fans as Osako took advantage of a loss of concentration to fire home the winner from outside the area.
The whole point of the tournament is to give those on the fringes a chance to shine. And it is also a great opportunity for centre-backs to give the veterans Lucas Neill and Sasa Ognenovski a run for their money. Ryan McGowan was one of the few bright spots against Korea but while the defending was less desperate against Japan, disciplined it was not.
Korea got wide and behind the Aussie backline on a number of occasions but Japan came through the middle time and time again and had plenty of joy.
All three Samurai Blue goals were easy on the eye –from the neutral's point of view – but heavy on the sigh – at least as far as Osieck was concerned. Too much time and space was given, especially for the first, and the way in which the backline, perhaps the whole team, switched off for the all-important third was disappointing.
Think of the opposite of 95,000 fans at the MCG belting out You'll Never Walk Alone and you won't be too far from the atmosphere at Hwaseong Sports Complex.
South of Seoul, Hwaseong was not the right choice to host games for this tournament. This is not because of the somewhat grisly past that the rural city has (it is well-known in Korea for being the place where 10 women were found murdered between 1986 and 1990.The killer – never found though as many as 20,000 suspects were apparently investigated – targeted women wearing red on rainy nights. The events were immortalised in an excellent film called Memories of Murder, one really worth watching as it is one of the best Asian movies of the last decade) but due to the difficulty in getting there.
There are plenty of cities within an hour of Seoul that have smart stadiums and excellent transport links to the capital but Hwaseong is not one of them. Perhaps it was in a desire to move away from events of a quarter of a century ago that caused the local government to plant a 35,000 capacity arena in the middle of what were, until recently, rice fields but given the difficulty in getting there on a midweek evening, it is not surprising that that attendance did not reach four figures.