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View Count: 67 |  Publish Date: June 08, 2013
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Socceroos' ageing warriors

Socceroo Sasa Ognenovski. Photo: Getty Images
The sun is setting on Australias golden generation. The next nine days will determine whether darkness settles on their international careers by mid-June, or the sun sits above the horizon for a while longer.
But even if the Socceroo veterans - and with a preponderance of first-choice players in their late 20s or 30s, this Australian side really is a group of old-timers - do get Australia to Brazil, there is no guarantee that all will survive to make the trip to South America.
Rarely has a team been more in need of reinvigoration, although coach Holger Osieck cannot be blamed for relying on the tried and tested to get him over the line if he believes that the youngsters available are not up to the job.
That seems to be the clear message Osieck has given out for most of his period in charge. Advertisement
While a few - Robbie Kruse in particular, Tommy Oar just recently, perhaps Tommy Rogic more in the future - have staked their claims, several younger players have been tried and discarded. A handful seem to have been stuck in a glass case with the label only use in time of emergency.
The recall of 34-year-old Sasa Ognenovski to the heart of the Australian defence for the game in Japan last week is a case in point. Big, strong, brave and whole-hearted, Ognenovski had not been seen since last Septembers 2-1 loss in Amman against Jordan, the match, with hindsight, which can be seen as the beginning of Australias rocky road to qualification. His future looked to be all behind him.
Players such as Robbie Cornthwaite - the accidental goal hero in the win over South Korea in November - had been tried, but when the coach needed a vital job done he relied on his old stagers - Ognenovski alongside captain Lucas Neill, 35. And the pair did not let him down, their experience and know-how coming to the fore in a tactical set-up in which Australia defended deeply and tried to hit Japan on the break, a structure that helped compensate for the veteran pairs lack of pace. When the job was there to be done, they did it, and vindicated Osiecks approach.
But Brazil is another year away, if Australia makes it.
At 36 and 35, as they would be then, could Neill and Ognenovski really be the pillars at the heart of Australias defence? It is unlikely that any other country in the finals would go into the tournament with a pair of ageing warriors of their ilk paired together. One, perhaps, but two?
In the midfield it is a similar story, where Mark Bresciano, 33 and playing in the Middle East, has assumed a crucial role as a playmaker. But what if he gets injured - not to mention the fact that he will be another year older in Brazil.
It is true to say that the Socceroos have never really replaced that midfield tandem of Vince Grella and Jason Culina, the partnership that served them so well in Germany in 2006 and in the run-up to South Africa in 2010.
Mile Jedinak gives them drive and power, but neither he nor Carl Valeri have provided the spark that Grella and Culina were so often able to create. Still, Jedinak is growing in stature with experience, having captained Crystal Palace into the English Premier League, and his confidence will be high. At 28 he is one of the younger brigade in this team.
Up front, Tim Cahill remains a potent threat but he, too, is getting long in the tooth - he is now 33 and, while the US Major League Soccer is a strong and developing competition, it is not the English Premier League, where he distinguished himself for so long in an Everton shirt.
Josh Kennedy is another who has turned 30, although his physical gifts - there are few strikers anywhere in the world with his height - give him a dimension that will stand him in stead even as he ages.
Mark Schwarzer has been a major figure for the national team for two decades and has declared that he wants to be Australias No. 1 in Brazil, as he was in Germany and South Africa.
He would be rising 42 in June 2014, old even by a top-flight goalkeepers standards, but it would be possible if he was playing regularly at a high level. But will he be? Schwarzer has just parted company with Fulham and his next club choice, and whether he plays regularly, will almost certainly determine whether he goes to South America as the Socceroos main man between the posts.
The only certainty, it would seem, is uncertainty.
If Australia does make it, Osieck may feel obliged to stand by the men who got him there. Their experience will be invaluable, but will they have the mobility, the energy and the pace to compete as they once used to at the highest level? It is unlikely.
So the upcoming East Asian Cup in South Korea in late July looms as a crucial link in the Socceroos unfolding chain.
If Australia qualifies for the World Cup directly, then Osieck will surely take the chance to blood some newcomers to see if they have what it takes to pep up his elderly retinue.
If Australia fails to make it, then it is unlikely to be Osiecks problem any more, and it would be surprising if the old soldiers did not fade away alongside him. The next nine days are crucial.

Time: 13:3  |  News Code: 271328  |  Site: brisbanetimes
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