By Ben McKay
Three of the world’s top 12-ranked nations – France, Denmark and Peru – stand in the way of the Socceroos in their World Cup group.
Whichever way you cut it, the Socceroos will be up against it.
A limited squad, tough group and backroom shake-up make Australia outsiders to progress from the group stage in Russia, let alone impact the tournament in the knock-out rounds.
But it’s for these reasons the most-capped Socceroo of all time, Mark Schwarzer, believes Australia is a chance to emulate the golden generation of 2006 and reach the last 16.
“We’re seen as the underdog, the team less likely, and I don’t mind that,” Schwarzer told AAP.
“I’m quietly confident.
“We’re in a group that’s doable. I say it’s doable because it’s achievable to get out of the group if things go our way. When teams underestimate us, that’s when we’re at our best.”
The Socceroos have at least one high-profile supporter, with legendary Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho picking Australia to get out of Group C in second place.
Yet Australia’s squad has it all to prove on the world stage.
Just six players have previously travelled to a World Cup, led by Mile Jedinak and Tim Cahill, who remain lion-hearted leaders but with their best football in the rear-view mirror.
The Socceroos will be led by next-gen players in Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic and Trent Sainsbury in Russia, all on their World Cup debut.
Incoming coach Bert van Marwijk has overseen a shake-up in the side’s attacking stocks. Andrew Nabbout, Jamie Maclaren, Dimi Petratos and wunderkind Daniel Arzani have all come in to support Ange Postecoglou’s first-choice frontman Tomi Juric.
The prospect of Arzani running at opposing defenders is exciting, but the Melbourne City teenager is untested at international level.
Down back, van Marwijk is betting on Josh Risdon at right-back, a major problem position since the last World Cup.
And with a stable central defensive partnership the foundation of so many successful national teams, it’s concerning that no choice stands out alongside Trent Sainsbury, plainly the Socceroos’ best defender.
Midfielder Mark Milligan was deployed there in the 4-0 friendly win over Czech Republic, with Matthew Jurman and Milos Degenek the other options.
There is strength in goal and in midfield, where van Marwijk has a number of options.
Mat Ryan should start as Australia’s No.1 but in Mitchell Langerak and Brad Jones, the Dutchman can feel confident in his choices.
It speak volumes that in the middle of the park, the debate is about who to squeeze out of the team.
Rogic, Mooy, Massimo Luongo and Jedinak will all believe they should be starting against France on June 16, with Jackson Irvine snapping at their heels.
Given Australia’s taxing group-stage opponents, van Marwijk is likely to rotate his side in the hope of qualifying.
After the world No.7 French come Denmark and Peru – ranked 12th and 11th in the global standings.
The Socceroos need to defy two of those sides to continue on past their group.
Chief among that challenge will be subduing Christian Eriksen, the Tottenham Hotspur playmaker who runs the show for Denmark.
After the opener in Kazan, Australia plays the Danes on June 21 in nearby Samara.
If Australia’s hopes are still alive by the final match, they’ll face the high-intensity South Americans on June 26 in Winter Olympics host city Sochi.
It’s an arduous challenge – which is why they’ve turned to an experienced hand to steer the side. In the wake of Ange Postecoglou’s remarkable decision to turn down the chance to lead the Socceroos to a World Cup he qualified them for, Dutchman van Marwijk has been handed the reins.
FFA hope the 66-year-old’s record in taking his native Holland to the 2010 final will stand up when he returns to the showpiece event.
It’s a risk, given the pragmatic coach has little time to implement his plans – many of which stand in opposition to Postecoglou’s style – before the tournament kicks off.