A wonder strike by Josip Skoko who sent a volley into the top left corner of Antonios Nikopolidis' goal just before the quarter-hour was enough to give Australia a 1-0 win against reigning European Champions Greeece at the MCG on Thursday evening. The goal sent the capacity 95,000 crowd into rapture, giving heart to those who look forward with optimism to Australia's forthcoming World Cup adventure.
This Socceroo side was without Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill, both absent through injury, who surely would be part of coach Guus Hiddink's preferred starting eleven. John Aloisi also stood out this match as a precaution. Into the team came Mile Sterjovski and Skoko who had combined effectively for the goal, giving Hiddink just the sort of selection problem coaches enjoy.
Marco Bresciano played a key part in the goal - which came from his corner - as well as throughout the match. As a Melbourne-raised boy, he'd have relished his chance to play at Melbourne's iconic sporting venue in front of a record attendance since the ground's re-configuration. Given that this was an all-seater and ticketed attendance, it's likely the attendance will not be bettered, even by sports which are more usually played there.
Captain Mark Viduka has also been reported to enjoy his returns to his old hometown, and the games at the 'G in particular. For these two overseas-based footballers, Bresciano in Italy and Viduka in England, together with Geelong-raised Skoko now plying his trade in England, coming home for the national team's farewell game in Melbourne was something to savour. And it showed.
Rarely did Greece threaten during the match such was Australia's tight control of the contest. And once Skoko had scored, it wasn't possible for Greece to rely on the tactic that had got it European silverware just two short years ago. During that tournament, Greece had eked out one-nil victories against France, the Czech Republic, and Portugal in the elimination phase by compressing the match and relying on a single effective attack. This time, Greece would have to wrest the game from its opponent's grasp. It failed. This was not just because it couldn't summon up the resources to do so, but because time and space on the ball was denied by the Australians' hard work.
There was much to play for if you were a Socceroo. Catching Guss' eye in one of the three lead-up games might make for a starting position in Australia's first World Cup game against Japan just over a fortnight later. For many - Skoko included - it might mean an ability to find a club elsewhere more suited to his type of footballing finesse and technique than a battling one in England's blood-and-thunder competition. Out of contract Stan Lazaridis who was brought on as a substitute by Hiddink late in the game and who showed good touches might also be of the view that a good World Cup would extend a career in the professional leagues of Europe, even though his English club was relegated.
Goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac had an opportunity to shine after so long being denied as preferred goalkeeper by Mark Schwarzer. Kalac had a nervy start, and little otherwise to do such was the Greeks' lack of purpose in front of goal. He may not have done enough to oust Schwarzer.
Defence has always been Australia's strong point, even when there were fewer riches up front than at present. The return of Craig Moore added steel cables. Lucas Neill on the left, and Brett Emerton on the right were both solid at the back as well as providing good wide play when the Socceroos were in possession. Vince Grella provided cover and energy as a defensive midfielder. There is much to be confident about when considering the defence.
Skoko, Bresciano, and Jason Culina made an effective engine room, Scott Chipperfield and Sterjovski provided the wider attacking options, with Viduka as an orthodox back-to-goal target man setting up his forward-pressing midfielders. These are exciting and optimistic times to be an Australia fan.
Surprisingly, the pitch looked to have been made much narrower than the venue and the game's laws allow. Another five yards each side could have been added. Perhaps this was part of Hiddink's preparation - make time and space even more constricted, and requiring sharper responses and quicker wide-play from his squad. It was effective if it was. The ball was constantly in motion, into and from Grella, Culina, and Bresciano constantly seeking the opening. The unforgiving nature of the overly-hard MCG playing surface meant underfoot conditions were not ideal for such speed, and such change of movement, but Australia seemed better able to cope with this than the visitors. And as the game progressed, save for a fifteen minute burst early in the second half when Greece seemed to lift, it was a match where only one side was likely to win.
As the Australia players went around the vast stadium on a lap-of-honour after the final whistle to the delight of the huge crowd, even those in blue and white nominally supporting Greece who would have been disappointed at their heroes' poor showing, paid tribute to the team which will carry their hopes as well as the hopes of those clad in green and gold for whom there are fewer conflicts of identity.