At the start of the match the commentators said that it was Frank Farina's intent to ensure the match was treated like the away leg of a World Cup qualifier. In the year when Australia will play at least one of those (and hopefully two) it remained to be seen if that meant we would create no meangful shots at goal and go down fighting or if we would work at reversing that particular trend.
It seems a large part of the away strategy to play with one man upfront. Doing this suggests possession should be maintained, the ball moved forward on the break or through intricate midfield passing with some of those midfielders pushing forward to support the lone striker on any forays towards the opposing goal.
You don't lob long balls to the poor bastard up front (usually the poor bastard is called Mark, today he was called Paul) and watch in amusement as 8 times out of 10 he can't get to the ball and the other two times he gets to the ball but has nobody to give it to and gets mauled by the defenders. I can't imagine how any South American side watching this game will be concerned by any of what they saw. Mind you a large part of the first half was not to be "seen" at all as a powerful electrical storm brought lightning, thunder and torrential rain which fell for large parts of the game. The storm interrupted the broadcast for a good 20 minutes and it was audio only. Not such a bad thing really.
For all this skill and flow the South Africans only had one goal to their credit. A run down the left flank and a pass towards the junction of penalty box and goal line was met Pienaar who sent the ball into the box with his first touch. Though there was plenty of defenders for Australia (well there had to be, nobody was attacking) Shaun Bartlett was unchallenged in meeting the ball with his chest. The chested bal was directed into the path of Benny McCarthy who left footed the ball through the legs of a defender (Grella?, Moore?), past the outstretched arm of Schwarzer and into the scoring side of the side netting. Only just over 10 minutes through, it could end up grim.
South Africa for their part were exhibiting a much more appealing and successful brand of football. Quentin Fortune in particular did well to orchestrate the midfield and unlike a lot of the Australian players when they received a pass the ball stayed in the general vicinity of the feet. Usually there were people to pass to and those people were moving in interesting directions. Infact had it not been against Australia I think I would have enjoyed their performance and the occasional acts of showboating might have been less irksome.
While I'm sure Jason Culina has done well to deserve the reward of a call up I have no idea what he was meant to be doing. It's not easy to step up in a debut game with a, well let's face it and call it crap, system and against a skilful side. It takes time to get used to international football. So naturally you blood new talent at times you can most afford to do so. I contend that the World Cup qualifying year is not one of those times.
At the half-hour mark Brett Emerton managed to get free on the flank and raced towards goal, hopeful armchair fans many timezones away willing him on to pull Australia's Macadamias out of the fire. The first shot was pushed away by the keeper and by the time Brett his chance to have another go he was almost over the goal line and there still wasn't anyone else around to pass the ball to. [Edit : On review it turns out there were infact 2 other Aussies in the vicinity, Agostino and some other guy getting marked out of existence. So my apologies there]
I don't really recall any other occasions in the first half where Australia had a decent scoring opportunity. Earlier there was a free kick at the outer limits of goal scoring range which Bresciano managed to smack into the face of one of the bricks in the wall. Not much of a scoring opportunity, but funny all the same.
I'd be surprised if Australia held the ball for more than 20 seconds at a time in the opposition half. In a way that'd be OK if they were impenetrable at the back, but that didn't happen either.
At the resumption of play the South Africans had made only one substitution and Australia none. It seems the play, though still favouring the home side, had moved up the field a little more and that the aimless long balls were replaced by a more circumspect approach.
The amusing thing about this is that in the heavy rain the longball approach might actually be a valid option. Still the game turned to be a little more even with Australia getting into scoring positions somewhat more readily but South Africa still having the better of things.
To be fair the scoring chances they produced were rarely the kind where a failure to score could be considered a glaring error. However it does little to calm your nerves to have the ball go in that direction with the regularity it did. You got the feeling that eventually all these half chances would be good enough to increase the lead.
Infact the main difference appeared to be that when the South Africans moved forward they had more options and moved faster. Whether this was confidence, greater ability or just plain good coaching is hard to say but there was a stark contrast between watching them and seeing Australia choose the possession option. Not that keeping the ball is a bad idea but if the option is move it forward and lose the ball or move it back and lose the ball you'd think you pick the option that keeps the ball as far away from your goal as possible.
So there it was, watching a game where you felt Australia were being outplayed by a more skilful side but still only sitting at 1-0 down. On the one hand you're only one goal down in difficult conditions with a side that hasn't been together for a while and is missing a number of first teamers. On the other hand you really only harbour patriotic hope of an equaliser because though your team is improving it's really not enough to convince the ball it should visit the South African goal.
Balls are odd things though. (Quiet at the back there... this isn't a porn site)
Frank Farina probably saw enough for him to agree with me (well maybe not completely but enough to bring on a range of substitutes) and bolstered his attacking options and, surprisingly, also took off Emerton who was one of the shinier stars in the unfamiliar all white strip (come to think of it we played a lot like New Zealand too).
As usual changing half the side means the game will change. Of course having McCarthy and Bartlett taken off means things were going to be looking up regardless. The upshot was that Australia started to do a lot better.
A rather innocent looking free kick awarded to Australia in the forward half was aimed at one of the many heads assembled in the box and bounced away, almost innocently, waiting for a defender to clean it up. Scott Chipperfield, however, was faster and not only got to the ball first but then decided to swing his leg at it and managed to connect so sweetly that words like "piledriver", "missile" and "potato salad" started forming in my head (I was hungry). The ball went over the top of the players in the box, just snuck under the crossbar and gave serious consideration to take the net off its fastenings before realising that it was much nicer to get a kiss from Max Vieri.
Funny game, football. Not a lot of people in the stadium were laughing though.
As the match petered out and the crowd was starting to thin out like the hair on Les Murray's head. You sort of got he feeling both sides felt happy enough. Even the rain had stopped, or at least became imperceptible.
Certainly there were still opportunities, I'm guessing the shots at goal still heavily favoured the home side by the end of the match and just as the 93rd minute was complete the promising young Ndolvu met a neat cross to get a header in which ended just wide of the goal.
In the post match discussions Simon Colosimo said that he felt Australia didn't defend any worse in the second half than in the first but South Africa held back a little more when Australia did start to make meaningful progress over the halfway line. It's good to hear this because not only does it make sense but should be a clear indication that this one man forward line business is not the way to go. Poor old Agostino was unable to show very much at all as he was lacking support. He gets subbed off and Vieri and Thompson keep the defenders occupied and Chipperfield smacks a long range missile into the net.
I suppose the one man system can be made to look better when you have Harry Kewell supporting Mark Viduka instead of Jason Culina supporting Paul Agostino... but I saw neither Harry nor Mark available in the lineup. Of course if you just look at the result 1-1 isn't too shabby.
The final word goes to the newsticker on the Channel 9 Today show "Socceroos defeat South Africa 1-1"