France should beware Atletico Madrid-lite Australia in World Cup opener
On Dec. 1 last year, when the Socceroos were drawn to play their World Cup opener against France, a slight sense of fear filled the hearts and minds of football fans across Australia.
At the time, the national side were without a head coach following the resignation of Ange Postecoglou only a week earlier, and the team had only scraped through qualification via the fourth round playoff in Asia followed by an inter-confederation playoff tie over two legs against Honduras. Australian football was in a place of uncertainty.
In fact, as Diego Forlan unfurled the piece of paper that confirmed Australia had drawn Les Bleus in their opening World Cup clash, scenes of the Socceroos' 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Germany in 2010 sprang to mind.
That opening defeat wounded the team's confidence -- not to mention their for-and-against record -- effectively ending the campaign just as it had begun. Ultimately, the Socceroos finished level with second-placed Ghana on four points in Group D but, having conceded four goals more, a place in the round of 16 never seemed likely.
It was a similar type of uneasy feeling that prevailed after the first game under new boss Bert van Marwijk this March. A 4-1 defeat against Norway in Oslo did little to lift expectations, particularly when the Dutchman's remit was to help fix a fragile defence.
A better performance against Colombia just four days later in a scoreless draw in London settled some nerves, but it has been the Socceroos' progress over the past month that has offered new hope.
Successive wins over the Czech Republic and Hungary -- 4-0 and 2-1 respectively -- have given many critics pause for consideration.
On top of the positive results, the Socceroos have played a more balanced brand of football, far removed from the swashbuckling, attack-at-all-costs style seen in the Postecoglou era. The influence of Van Marwijk is starting to take effect.
Not that this should be a surprise. After all, Van Marwijk did take Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final, where they were defeated by all-conquering Spain.
His no-nonsense style came under immense scrutiny at that time, particularly as it contrasted so clearly the free-flowing, short-passing game of the Spanish. But it seems that a healthy dose of pragmatism is exactly what the Socceroos needed heading into this World Cup.
Interestingly, Van Marwijk is modelling the team on La Liga outfit Atletico Madrid who, of course, have taken on much bigger clubs with great success in recent years. And the Socceroos will need this same fearless attitude when they take on France this Saturday.
Led by Atletico's Antoine Griezmann and Manchester United's Paul Pogba, Didier Deschamps' men are obviously deserved favourites. But you get the feeling that having an underdog tag could be a good thing for the Socceroos under a wily manager like Van Marwijk.
With captain Mile Jedinak likely to return in midfield alongside Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic, the core of the side is looking strong. Having returned to a back four under their new coach -- Postecoglou preferred a three-man defence toward the end of his tenure -- there is, at last, a more solid foundation from which to build.
Of course, to suggest that Australia is now confident of taking points from the contest this weekend would be an exaggeration. However, there is an air of cautious optimism that a top-two finish in Group C is not out of the question, and that all starts with showing some resilience when faced with the might of France.
Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks