In the end Australia exited the FIFA Confederations Cup as the past four AFC entrants before them had – with group stage elimination – but they did so with as many positives as negatives.
Asia’s struggles at the quadrennial tournament are becoming close to entrenched with the Socceroos departing with just the two points, the same mark that Iraq achieved back in 2009 before Japan’s three consecutive losses from four years ago.
Indeed you have to go all the way back to 2005 to find the continent’s last win and that came when Japan edged then shock European champions Greece 1-0 with the goal coming from a man, Masashi Oguro, who is still kicking around the Japanese second division at the age of 37.
That Australia had to rely on starting a player of the same age in Tim Cahill in a must-win match against arguably the best nation at the tournament, Chile, in their final fixture is both recognition of the veteran’s tireless, fighting, qualities but also an indictment on a system that’s failed to produce younger options in more than a decade of the professional A-League environment.
With the Socceroos still looking though to bed in the relatively new 3-4-2-1 approach that coach Ange Postecoglou has them lining up in, the positives would be easy to overlook in the shadow of the results.
The most obvious of those is precious time in camp that other nations, primarily their direct opponents for World Cup qualification, Japan and Saudi Arabia, would have loved to have had.
An extra week and a half of tactical sessions, both on and off the training ground and three highly competitive matches against the World, African and South American champions should be an invaluable cache of experience for the side ahead of their final two qualifiers and possibly the main event itself in Russia next year.
Playing Germany was good experience for the Socceroos.
Moreover, Australia improved noticeably as the tournament progressed, turning in their strongest showing of the three matches against a Chile side that they matched for long stretches of their clash in the Russian capital on Sunday evening.
That showing, scrutinised closely in Japan, could well plant seeds of doubt in the hosts ahead of their vital showdown with Australia in eight weeks in the penultimate World Cup qualifier and that, in itself, could be well worth the exercise in Russia over the past seven days.
— Robbie Slater (@RobbieSlater17) June 25, 2017
These three matches will also help the coach fine tune his laser on the players he requires to execute the tactical approach that still has its flaws both in its implementation and possibly design but so too will the time in camp and match situations have confirmed the spot of several players in the squad moving forward and enhanced those of others.
Whilst some may have been disappointed not to have seen the ‘bolter’ of the squad in Dutch-based Ajdin Hrustic, the dynamic showing of 20-year-old left-sided wingback Alex Gersbach in the 1-1 draw with Cameroon was a real glimmer of hope.
Trent Sainsbury manned the central role in the back three with a fair degree of composure throughout for someone who has seen little playing time following his loan move to Italy, whilst Mark Milligan was superb in a central midfield role against Cameroon and perhaps even better as the right sided option in the back three against Chile.
The pick of the lot though was the enigmatic Tom Rogic; a wonderfully gifted midfield technician whose career has been consistently stunted by a collection of injuries but who, when fit, is one of the most graceful players that Australia has had in more than a decade.
Rogic was the pick of the Socceroos.
In the end though the Socceroos depart Russia in much the same fashion that they did the last time they graced a major international stage – in Brazil three years ago – with their reputation enhanced even as the results didn’t match those efforts.
As Asia’s representatives they performed above the level that many expected but the question that is at least worth pondering is how Asia’s best nation would have done at this competition.
It will likely come as a surprise to many that not only are the Socceroos – current Asian champions, nonetheless, – not the top ranked team in Asia they haven’t held that mantle in more than five full years.
Not since May of 2012 were the Socceroos the top-ranked AFC nation on FIFA’s monthly charts with that slot being held for all bar a handful of times by Iran.
Blessed with several stars that are shining in some of Europe’s biggest leagues, with a vastly experienced coach and the fanatical backing of tens of millions back home even as issues both of the football and political variety conspire to limit their preparations, Iran would have been the fairytale entrants for Asia at this tournament – all the more so given they’ve already stamped their ticket to the main dance in 12 months time.
Australia, or indeed Japan and Saudi Arabia, are potentially less than two months away from joining them with the hopes of most football fans across Asia being raised that the region’s representatives will carry that banner with not just impressive performances but also strong results in a year from now.