Credit where it's due. Media and fans alike - I am in both camps - are quick to question when the Socceroos perform poorly, as they did against Thailand. Is the team too old? Complacent? Is Holger Osieck losing his grip? Is he old school, a lover of the long ball? Was it an aberration or a sign of deeper ills?
This is football. The thoroughly enjoyable cycle of boom and bust, brilliant to incompetent, exciting to turgid, old to young, foreign to local, all grist for the mill of debate that keeps the game central to life. And the Thailand match was, without question, shockingly awful. By the same token, the Saudi match was very, very good. An immense turnaround in four days.
Not long ago there seemed to be a sensitivity to any criticism, a siege mentality that the public was against them, perpetuated by the coaches. Today, a subtle but extremely important change has taken place. This time, the players reacted beautifully, professionally and with maturity. They acknowledged the poor showing in the Thai game, accepted responsibility and responded with an outstanding away performance of initiative, control, calmness and quality.
So, too, did Osieck earn his salt. He calmly accepted the questioning and set about solving the problems. Having selected a front line of Tim Cahill and Josh Kennedy against Thailand that led to a lack of attacking variation, a rethink was necessary. Having given Matthew Spiranovic important experience against the weaker Thais at home, Sasa Ognenovski was favoured for additional physical presence and experience against the Saudis. Neil Kilkenny, an exciting but still emerging prospect, played too horizontally against the Saudis and was replaced by Mile Jedinak. And Michael Zullo's inclusion at left back allowed Matt McKay to move inside where he's more suited, shifting Brett Holman into his preferred central role. This necessitated Cahill being left out.
After a shuffling performance a few days before, the team was instructed to play vertically, to go forward, to risk the passes into midfield with one of the two screeners always staggered as another forward option. This is how Australia likes to play and likes their team to play. Carl Valeri was more influential, Lucas Neill was his old self with greater options in midfield ahead of him to feed the ball and Kennedy continued his rich vein of form from the J-League with two vital away goals. But the key was Holman.
Always close to the ball, available, forming combinations with the deep screeners or wide duets, and provoking the Saudis with clever play in the forward third, Australia were able to force the ball from the air to the ground and play some excellent passing football because they had options. Moreover, the big difference from the last campaign is the team was sent out to control the ball, dictate the game and take the initiative away from home, rather than play with great caution and rely on counter attack.
Leaving Cahill out is always a tough call. He is a player of great scoring ability who also gives immense forward defensive cover. It was an important signal that the most effective combination will be used, irrespective of reputations.
Every balanced team needs the right mix of leaders, workers, controllers, creators, providers and finishers. Timmy's finishing is fundamental to Australia's progression and chances in 2014. On this occasion, though, a different type of player was needed behind a solitary striker. He accepted his role professionally and in the best interests of the shirt he loves. This is both a mark of the man, and of the long-standing Socceroos team culture that has always placed the group, the nation before the individual.
Attitude, acceptance, team ethic, hard decisions, boldness and quality has placed Australia in an enviable position in this stage of qualifying and, although he won't admit it, it's given Osieck the luxury of already planning for the fourth and final stage.