World Cup Rank Bank – Australia

Gotta love them ‘Roos. Personally, I have a soft spot for Australia when it comes to professional sport. They’re just great craic, aren’t they? If it’s not their cricket fans giving the English players hell during The Ashes, the anarchy of Pat Cash climbing through the throngs on Centre Court, or indeed the thongs of their Women’s Beach Volleyball team, it’s a Mark Bosnich green card marriage. Their footballers travel to Russia as the rank outsiders in what is officially the tightest group. But this isn’t their first rodeo, and their fans will be expectant, as the men from Down Under compete in their fourth successive finals.

 

Manager: Bert van Marwijk

The Aussie’s are managed by Dutch Football’s answer to Elvis and Michael Jackson, in father Bert van Marwijk and son-in-law Mark van Bommel. The paralleling of van Bommel and Michael Jackson entertains me. They have an unbeaten record at the helm, certainly at least in part thanks to the fact they haven’t yet had a match – van Marwijk announced his first squad for friendlies with Norway and Colombia last week. In the Dutch man, the ‘Roos are tapping into a vast wealth of international management experience. After guiding his compatriots all the way to the final in South Africa in 2010, he also secured Saudi Arabia’s qualification to this year’s tournament, oddly. Failing to agree a new contract with the Saudi’s in the aftermath of their qualification, van Marwijk left his role in the Gulf, but his physical and dynamic brand of football could well be a perfect fit for the Australians.

 

Star Player: Tom Rogic (Celtic)

Playmaker Rogic is a wholly biased choice, after his beautiful solo effort pulled the Hoops back on terms last Sunday in the Old Firm game, but he will play a central role if the Aussies are to have any success in Russia. He’s one of a number of recognisable names in their midfield, including the likes of Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy, Villa enforcer Mile Jedinak and of course Premier League legend Tim Cahill, who has recently rocked back up at Millwall. Rogic and Mooy will look to lay on chances for goal threats Matthew Leckie and Tomi Juric up front, but for now, lets just drink that goal in again…

 

Record v Ireland: Won (1) Drawn (0) Lost (1)

Twice, Australia have made the trip over in international friendlies. Goals from John O’ Shea and Clinton Morrison secured a come-from-behind victory back in August 2003, a brief release from the terrible Euro 2004 qualifying campaign. Good man Mick. They returned again in August 2009, this time to Thomond Park, where Australia were to run out comfortable victors – Tim Cahill getting a brace on the night.

 

Little Known Fact: Hello, Goodbye at the FFA

So try to keep up. Five months ago, Australia claimed passage to Russia after a rousing second leg play off victory over Honduras in Sydney. Hurrah say all those at the Football Federation of Australia. Six days later the bombshell of coach Ange Postecoglou’s tearful resignation seemingly threw plans for the finals into the wind. However, in the months leading up to the decisive play off, conjecture was growing that Postecoglou was beleaguered with his country’s top job. At the end of January, the FFA announced that Bert van Marwijk would step in on an interim basis to negotiate preparations for Russia and the finals themselves, an exciting coup for all involved. But like a night I once had with a girl from Sweden when I was eighteen, the excitement will eventually lead to an all too brief affair. That’s because last Sunday it was announced that Graham Arnold, manager of Sydney FC, was to step into the breach on a long term basis after the World Cup. Many aren’t happy. Roberto Mancini and Marco Bielsa had been touted for the job, not to mention the questionable form of Arnold’s Sydney side since the start of March – one draw and three defeats could have come at a more convenient time one imagines. I’d imagine this is what arranged marriage feels like.

 

How Will They Go?

Despite being the lowest ranked team in their group, the distraction of the rotating coaches, and having to take on the delectable French, I actually feel Australia could cause a few surprises. Given that experience and creativity in their midfield, the games against Denmark and Peru could be extremely tight affairs, especially if van Marwijk and van Bommel have enough time to put their physical stamp on the team. Certainly, the 100/30 that Bet Victor are offering on them to finish Top Asian team at the tournament could prove a shrewd investment.

Prediction: 2nd – ballsy and outlandish statement. How very Australian of me!

 

World Cup Rank Bank – Saudi Arabia

The Least from The Middle-East

Al-Suqour ( I bet you would, boy!), or The Falcons, arrive in Russia as 1500/1 outsiders and the lowest ranked team in the tournament. But can the nation that employs Sergei Rebrov and our own Kevin Sheedy in club management cause a surprise for the hosts in Group A?

Manager: Juan Antonio Pizzi

Juan_Antonio_Pizzi_(2)Famous for being Gerard Butler’s greasy brother and a favourite Championship Manager freebie of yesteryear, I’d personally thought the guy had gone back to live on a ranch, toting a gun and wearing a big silly hat in Argentina until he rocked up in Valencia a few seasons ago. After having made a real cataclysmic f**k up there, failing to qualify for Europe for the first time in donkeys, he resurfaced eighteen months later to become Chile manager, picking up where Jorge “The Orb” Sampaoli had left off  in winning the 2016 edition of the Copa América. Was acquired by the Saudis for many gold coins shortly after Bert van Marwijk guided them to Russia, and even more shortly after they disposed of Edgardo Bauza after a whole what embarrassing display in the Gulf Cup of Nations.

Star Player: Nawaf Al-Abed

The Al-Hilal playmaker is quickly becoming one of Asian football’s hottest properties and was pivotal to the Kingdom’s qualification for the finals. Scoring five goals, four of which came from the penalty spot, the men in green will look to him to take the game to opposition defences, not having the luxury of a proven goalscorer up top. A man with what must be enormous testicles.

Record v Ireland: Won (0) Drawn (0) Lost (1)

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The week after Keane’s wonder strike beat Khan in Kashima, our Boys in Green had to finish the job off in what was a slippery sort of final group game against the Saudis as they bid to make the last 16, back in 2002. Robbie was on target early to settle nerves, before big Gary Breen and Duffer sealed the victory with second half strikes. The epic and heartbreaking penalty shootout defeat to the Spanish would follow five days later, but Ireland could leave the Far East with their heads held high after the fiasco in Saipan. You can stick that up your bollocks Mick!

Little known fact: The Spanish Experiment

Frustrated at the Premier League’s all conquering domination of television rights in Asia, La Liga had the brainwave in January of encouraging a clutch of Saudi football stars to take the almost unprecedented step of venturing to foreign shores to ply their trade. La Liga called the arrival of the Saudi players in Spain a result of a “rigorous scouting process”. Yeah, for all your oily coin. Of the four players that joined La Liga clubs, as of the start of March they had accumulated a grand total of sweet F.A. in game time.

How will they go?

In what could possibly the scariest game of football ever televised, Russia will host the Saudis in the opening game of the tournament. If there are those of you who are thinking “apocalyptic bloodbath”, know you are not alone. On the field, this may be the men from the middle east’s best chance of registering a point, catching what might be nervous hosts cold, in front of an expectant, and what’s bound to be fervent, home support. Can’t see them coping with Suarez nor Salah in their remaining group games.

Prediction: 4th in Group A