World Cup 2006


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    Articles related to OCEANIA 2006 WC qualifiers:

    Preview Apr 25, 2004
    Preview May 27, 2004
    Update May 30, 2004
    Update Jun 2, 2004
    Update Jun 4, 2004
    Update Jun 6, 2004
    Wrap-up Jun 28, 2004
    Update Sep 4, 2005
    Wrap-up Sep 19, 2005
    Preview Nov 8, 2005
    Update Nov 13, 2005
    Update Nov 16, 2005




    Preview: OFC qualifiers, Stage 2 & Stage 1 summary

    by Paul Marcuccitti

        It's autumn in Adelaide, Australia and it's a beautiful time of the year here. Earlier today, I walked my little dog on the tree-lined footpaths of the city's quiet eastern suburbs. The sky is cloudy, it's about 16 degrees (Celsius) and there's a bit of wind around. Alfie (my dog) and I have enjoyed kicking our way through the fallen leaves.

        For all the fun I had painting a picture of tropical bliss in the South Pacific in my preview of Stage 1 of the Oceania qualifiers, it's the cooler weather that I really enjoy. Adelaide is a place where you really feel the change in seasons. The summers are dry and hot (a few summer days are up and around 40 C); the winters are cool.

        The truth is that we're a world away from the South Pacific. Adelaide isn't even on the Pacific Ocean and, although the eastern cities of Sydney and Brisbane face our Oceania friends a bit more directly, they're still a long, long way away. New Caledonia is nearly 1500 kilometres across the sea from Brisbane. Tahiti is over 5000 kilometres away. Neighbours? I think not.

        If Australia's remoteness in the world places obstacles in the way of matching European and South American countries on the soccer pitch, the remoteness of the South Pacific island nations doesn't help them to compete with Australia. We might be David in the world of soccer but we're Goliath in Oceania.

        There are no easy answers to the problems presented by our confederation's unique set of circumstances. But at least we're about to get our best ever indication of the relative standard of Oceania's teams. That's because of the improved format of this year's Oceania qualifiers. Instead of splitting the teams up into two groups where, inevitably, Australia and New Zealand each play one or two semi-challenging matches and thrash the other minnows, the "big two" are in a single group with the best of the rest. The single group will allow us to better understand how each team is placed in terms of performance, development, etc.

        It's hard to describe how fortunate I feel to have World Cup qualifiers in my home city. It may not be awfully exciting for a lot of Adelaide residents - even soccer fans who might see this part of the qualification series as a formality on the road to the eventual crunch matches against (insert whichever team you think will finish 5th in South America).

        But I'm over the moon! One of the two Adelaide venues for these matches is just over a kilometre from both the office I work in and the first house I lived in. The World Cup mountain is, quite literally, coming to Mohammed. (However, I do realise that I'm not exactly going to be the envy of soccer fans in Munich, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro.)

        In his book, Down Under, that travel-loving American author, Bill Bryson, wrote, "Adelaide is the most overlooked of Australia's principal cities. You could spend weeks in Australia and never suspect it was there, for it rarely makes the news or gets a mention in anyone's conversation. It is to Australia essentially what Australia is to the world - a place pleasantly regarded but far away and seldom thought about."

        Seeing as most soccer fans around the world could just about describe Stage 2 of the Oceania World Cup qualifiers in a similar way, perhaps it's appropriate that sleepy Adelaide was selected for this part of the circus.

        Of course, there is a reason why relatively few people seem interested in the coming week's action: everyone expects Australia and New Zealand to get through to Stage 3 of this series (by finishing in the group's top two). And, yes, that will probably happen.

        Just for a moment, though, imagine if it doesn't. Imagine if Australia finished 3rd in this group. We'd be out of the 2006 World Cup, out of the Oceania Nations Cup (as that competition has been merged with the World Cup qualifiers) and we'd even be out of next year's Confederations Cup. It would be regarded as the biggest disaster in Australia's soccer history (and we've sure had a few). But if everything goes to plan, Stage 2 will be what everyone expects - the necessary, predictable starting point of Australia's road to a November 2005 showdown with a team that can play.

        Before I start to preview Stage 2, a wrap on Stage 1 in the Solomon Islands and Samoa.

        I'll keep this short because I couldn't see any of the matches and I can only rely on a few brief match reports. As I predicted, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji qualified for the series in Adelaide but Tahiti also made it (at the expense of New Caledonia - which I felt might win Group 1). Here's a comparison between my Group 1 prediction and the outcome:

        PREDICTION                OUTCOME
                         P Pts                    P Pts
        New Caledonia    4  10    Solomon Islands 4  10
        Solomon Islands  4   8    Tahiti          4   8
        Tahiti           4   7    New Caledonia   4   7
        Tonga            4   3    Tonga           4   3
        Cook Islands     4   0    Cook Islands    4   0
        Funny how the two points columns are identical but the order of teams isn't. But we did know that there wasn't much between the top three here and someone had to miss out. Ultimately the group's outcome was determined by three pivotal games: the first was a scoreless draw between Tahiti and New Caledonia and, later, Solomon Islands recorded a decisive 2-0 win over the New Caledonians. On the final day, Tahiti played the Solomons and needed a point to get through (a win to the Solomons would have eliminated Tahiti because Tahiti's goal difference wasn't as good as New Caledonia's). Fortunately for the Tahitians, the Solomons had already qualified for Stage 2 with 3 wins; even more fortunately, the Solomons were wasteful in front of goal. So Tahiti grabbed a 1-1 draw and qualification. If I was wrong to predict that the Tahitians would be eliminated, I was right to think that they're not quite in the same shape they were in 2002 when they famously scared Australia. It does appear as if they scraped through.

        The Solomons are the real story here. Depending on which websites you read, the other three teams that advanced from Stage 1 have all recently been described as "the third best team in Oceania". But it was the Solomons that were most convincing in Stage 1. They did have the advantage of hosting the group so it will be interesting to see if their form holds in Australia.

        After reaching the Final of last year's South Pacific Games, the New Caledonians would have to be disappointed with this effort. They actually scored more goals than any of the other teams in Group 1 but, ultimately, they would have been fortunate to qualify for Stage 2 with just a draw and a loss in the two matches against their main group rivals. New Caledonia has just been accepted as FIFA's newest full member and hopefully that's some consolation.

        Now for the comparison between my Group 2 prediction and the outcome:

        PREDICTION                OUTCOME
                         P Pts                     P Pts
        Fiji             4  12    Vanuatu          4  10
        Vanuatu          4   9    Fiji             4   9
        Samoa            4   6    Papua New Guinea 4   7
        Papua New Guinea 4   3    Samoa            4   3
        American Samoa   4   0    American Samoa   4   0
        I definitely underestimated the Papua New Guineans but they are, after all, Oceania's greatest enigma. In its opening match, PNG led Vanuatu until an injury time equaliser gave Vanuatu a share of the points. A late goal also denied PNG a draw against Fiji. How costly those goals were for Australia's northern neighbour!

        The Fijians, like the Solomon Islands, ensured qualification for stage 2 by winning their first three matches so, when they played Vanuatu on the final day, they could afford to lose (though they'd have to be a bit worried by the final score of 0-3). Indeed, like Tahiti, Vanuatu needed at least a point from its last match to qualify.

        Samoa was a bit of a disappointment - outclassed by all its opponents except for hapless American Samoa. But guess what? None of the Samoan players I mentioned in my Stage 1 preview actually played. (Not even the extraordinary Desmond Fa'aiuaso who, I fear, will find a future playing rugby.) For various reasons, player availability is one of the great Oceania problems.

        So what happens now in Stage 2? Can any of the tropical islanders knock over Australia or New Zealand? Remember, the top 2 teams in this group will get everything: passage to the Final of the Oceania Nations Cup (the winner of which will reach the Confederations Cup); and passage to the home-and-away Final of the Oceania qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup. Teams 3,4,5 and 6 will be out of the lot.

        Australia isn't likely to stumble. The Socceroos are better prepared for these qualifiers than they have been for more difficult qualifiers in the past. Two recent games against Turkey will have been invaluable and, although the Aussies lost both matches, a lot of second-choice players looked more than adequate in the absence of a number of first-choice members of the team. Depth - very important with such a cramped match schedule - will be an asset for the Socceroos. No Harry Kewell or Mark Viduka? Fine. Step up Napoli's Max Vieri (yes, brother of Christian), 1860 Munich's Paul Agostino, etc. Australia's midfield options include Vince Grella (Empoli), Brett Emerton (Blackburn), Stan Lazaridis (Birmingham), Josip Skoko (Genclerbirligi, Turkey), Tim Cahill (Millwall) and the in-form Marco Bresciano (Parma). The Socceroos should dominate the middle of the park against the other Stage 2 teams.

        New Zealand, on the other hand, might just be a little vulnerable. The All Whites haven't played an international this year and their inspirational captain, Ryan Nelson (DC United, USA), is in doubt for the opening match. They're also making what might be interpreted as pre-emptive excuses by accusing Australia of "rigging" the draw (because New Zealand's first three matches are against Australia and the two group winners from Stage 1). The Kiwi officials didn't exactly explain why this was a problem and, as the four teams from Stage 1 are fairly evenly matched, it shouldn't be. Like Ryan Nelson, All White midfielders Duncan Oughton and Simon Elliott are based in the United States (both with Columbus Crew). But the most important player in the middle of the park is likely to be the talented Ivan Vicelich (Roda JC, Netherlands). The Kiwis might struggle up forward, especially against Australia. Ironically, it will be two players from Australia's National Soccer League who might have to provide the All Whites' goals - veteran Vaughan Coveny (South Melbourne) and young striker Shane Smeltz. As an Adelaide United player, Smeltz will feel right at home.

        But for New Zealand to be knocked out by one of the Stage 1 qualifiers, I'd expect there'd have to be a real standout among those teams. And there just isn't one. I can imagine, say, the Fijians holding New Zealand to a draw after dropping points to the Solomon Islands - thereby keeping the Kiwis in the top two. The "big two" are also favoured by the tight schedule. Each team has to play 5 matches in 9 days and it'll be Australia and New Zealand, with their greater squad depths, which will cope better with those demanding arrangements. (Adjusting to Adelaide's current cold weather might also be difficult for the boys from the tropics!)

        I'm not going to predict any surprises and, this time, I'm not game enough to predict a final points table either. Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tahiti are very evenly matched. Here, at least, is my prediction for the group's finishing order when Oceania Stage 2 concludes on 6 June:

       1 Australia
       2 New Zealand
       3 Solomon Islands
       4 Vanuatu
       5 Fiji
       6 Tahiti
        Plus, I'll say that Australia will defeat New Zealand 2-0 on the opening night (Saturday, 29 May).

    And I'll be there to see it - and report back to you. Fantastic!


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