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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Asian Cup 2011 Comment: It's Time For Australia To Trust In Its A-League Stars

By Chris Paraskevas

Jan 26, 2011 5:07:00 AM

Robbie Kruse and Matt McKay, Australia vs Uzbekistan (Getty Images)
Robbie Kruse and Matt McKay, Australia vs Uzbekistan (Getty Images)


March 5, 2009 is a dark day in the A-League’s short history.

No league fixture was played on that day but in Canberra, a team of domestic stars lined up against lowly Kuwait in an Asian Cup qualifier and turned in a woeful performance as they succumbed to a 1-0 defeat.

After the match, national team boss Pim Verbeek labelled the performance of strikers Daniel Allsopp and Archie Thompson – both established A-League stars – as “absolutely hopeless”.

The A-League experiment had failed spectacularly.

By contrast, January 26 could be a watershed day for the competition thanks to the performance of a certain Matt McKay against Uzbekistan.

McKay was a member of the beleaguered side that lost to Kuwait in Canberra and after a fine season with Brisbane Roar, is part of the squad for the 2011 Asian Cup.

His man-of-the-match performances against Iraq and then the Uzbeks have seen him lavished with praise from commentators and rightly so.

Few would have expected the Brisbane Roar captain to play such a key role before the tournament began.

McKay orchestrated Australia’s two knockout stage victories with his intelligent passing, laying on four assists for teammates, including a superb angled ball into the box to tee up Harry Kewell’s dramatic late winner against defending champions Iraq.

In defence meanwhile he has made some telling contributions, often seen tracking back and stealing the ball off the toes of attackers in promising positions.

He has also transformed David Carney from an unconvincing left-back into a potent attacking threat, linking up to devastating effect with the former Sydney FC player and doing the same with the aforementioned Kewell.

Watching McKay, you could swear he had been part of this collection of players since the 2006 World Cup in Germany such is the understanding he appears to share with them on the football pitch.

His movement and the tempo of his distribution have been perfectly in synch with his more established international teammates and far from looking out of place, he in fact held his spot in the starting line-up for the Uzbekistan game despite the return of veteran Brett Emerton from suspension.

Holger Osieck’s faith in McKay has been his saving grace in a tournament where the Socceroos have otherwise failed to convince as a unit; the A-League player’s energy on and off the ball has transformed the way the Australians have played.

One of the players of the tournament, the versatile midfielder has shown that the national team can now rely more heavily on A-League players in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Whilst it would be unwise to revert back to the entirely domestic-based XI that was sent out against Kuwait, certainly a small collection of individuals of McKay’s ilk would compliment superbly the likes of Cahill, Jedinak and Holman.

Robbie Kruse was wasteful in front of goal against the Uzbeks but looked comfortable on the ball nonetheless, adding another dimension to Australia’s attacking play and grabbing a rather fortunate goal (deserving of his efforts, however).

Flying The Flag | Brisbane Roar captain McKay has shown A-League players can be trusted

Of those A-League players not called up, Mckay’s Roar teammates Erik Paartalu, Ivan Franjic and K-League-bound Luke DeVere would slot in comfortably to this Australian starting line-up if necessary.

Admittedly it is difficult to name more than a handful of such players who could confidently claim a place in the squad for this tournament, though that isn’t necessarily an immediate problem for the league.

To be able to provide even three or four players for the national team set-up in four years time would be a notable contribution, particularly if those players were to be used on the pitch as effectively as McKay has been.

The A-League has struggled during its formative years to find a clear modus operandi, struggling to attract top players due to financial constraints or seeing its brightest young talents snapped up at criminal prices.

Yet in the cultivation of physically, mentally and technically ready internationals, it might just have an important role in Australian football in the years to come, particularly seeing as how the current golden generation of stars might not kick on to Brazil.

At the age of 28 McKay is the perfect example of what the competition can produce, though he is the product of his club manager and not necessarily a wider trend.

Ange Postecoglou’s pass and move brand of football has allowed McKay to flourish and he has brought the same dynamic to the Socceroos, a side who have desperately lacked just that sort of style in recent times.

The Kuwait disaster was born out of an infant competition where the general style of play wasn’t conducive to the sort of positive football that has characterized McKay’s performances.

That same competition is changing – gradually – for the good with regards to its developmental and stylistic culture.

Osieck and his successors will reap the benefits if they show faith in it.