Slovakia 0 - Australia 0

While Australia still await their first win under new coach Frank Farina, after a scoreless draw against Slovakia in the second match of the four-team tournament in Chile, signs exist that they are starting to reflect his character.

The Socceroos had the better of a frenetic contest played on a tight, uneven pitch at Valparaiso on Saturday, made harder by a howling southerly wind blowing down the ground.

Slovakia, who brought an entire home-based squad to South America, were content to put players behind the ball and rely on the counter-attack - a tactic which made Socceroo goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer virtually redundant, but also served to frustrate an Australian side controlling possession.

Denied time and space by the willing Slovaks, it was a constant struggle for Australia to get the ball into areas where strikers Steve Corica and David Zdrilic could be effective. Zdrilic, in particular, suffered without the sort of service that makes his direct style so threatening.

Despite the result, Farina was delighted with the performance.

"I thought we dominated from start to finish, it's just unfortunate we couldn't put our one or two chances away," he said. "The ball just didn't want to fall for us in the box. I'm disappointed we didn't win because we were the only team trying to play out there, but psychologically it's important that we at least got something out of the game. I thought we played well."

Significantly, perhaps, it was the manner in which Australia played without the ball which was the most telling insight of the match.

A strong opinion exists in the game that during the past decade, the Socceroos sacrificed too much of their traditional strengths - high workrate and physical commitment - in trying to prove themselves skilful. Indeed, many observers think this is what cost Australia qualification for the most recent World Cup in the deciding final 20 minutes against Iran.

Whatever the case, Farina - a player who never shirked a contest - clearly intends to re-ignite the team's physical edge. This is evident not only in the evolving style - including discarding the sweeper system - but also in selection of personnel.

The renaissance of Danny Tiatto perhaps encapsulates this change best, for he is a player who is tough and skilful. And camp morale indicates the players are delighted with this approach.

As it happened, Tiatto was sidelined against Slovakia through a corked quadricep, his place taken by the versatile Scott Chipperfield, who was encouraged to push through the middle as often as possible.

At left fullback, Stephen Laybutt replaced the suspended Jason van Blerk, while up front, Zdrilic came in for Paul Agostino, and on the right side of midfield, Kasey Wehrman replaced injured Craig Foster, as four changes were made to the side which lost the opening match against Chile.

In the context of a rugged game played at a furious pace, the best player on the park was midfielder Josip Skoko, whose crunching tackles - one put Slovakian striker Marek Ujlaky out of the game - underpinned the Australian performance. Skoko is building an unbeatable case for selection when the World Cup campaign gets under way next year.

Next to Skoko, skipper Paul Okon - a player whose close skill and vision has always been his forte - also savoured an enforcer role. Leadership is clearly having an effect on Okon, who, after four injury-hit years, is desperate to make up for lost time on the international stage.

Overall, there wasn't a poor performer in green and gold - the bench included. After all, the two best strikes came in the final flurry from substitute Pablo Cardozo, who almost marked his debut with a goal but was twice denied by Slovak goalkeeper Ivan Trabauk.

Zdrilic also hit the side netting from a Corica corner as the Socceroos pushed to conquer an inferior team.

Perhaps the only criticism is that Australia still lack a dead-ball specialist to open packed defences, such as Slovakia's. Farina's decision to omit Perth Glory striker Con Boutsianis remains a moot point.

The Socceroos will end the tournament against Bulgaria on Tuesday night, but will have to get by without Skoko and Okon.

Skoko must return to Belgium for a medical test to complete his transfer from Hajduk Split to Genk and be registered for next weekend. Farina said he was "grateful" that the player had made himself available for two games, against the wishes of his new employers.

Okon has to return to Italy for personal reasons, and again Farina has no complaints about his early departure. Assistant coach Graham Arnold is also leaving before the Bulgaria match, returning to Sydney to try to sort out the problems at his national league club, Northern Spirit, before rejoining the Socceroos in Hungary next week.

written by Michael Cockerill