Australia's hopes rest on old legs and cool heads

By Ian Ransom

Dutch coach Pim Verbeek's defense-based tactics led to seven clean sheets and no defeats in their last eight qualifiers.

It also generated complaints about 'ugly' football and a dearth of goal-scoring flair, and local fans fear that while the Socceroos may be able to bully Gulf states and central Asian nations, they will not trouble the world's best.

This hand-wringing has not hosed down expectations, however, and the team are under pressure at least to match their surprise appearance in the knockout round in 2006 when they lost to eventual champions Italy after a last-minute penalty.

"We certainly want to achieve what we achieved last time and go beyond that," Football Federation Australia chief Ben Buckley told local media. "If we don't aspire to that I think people should be critical of us."

As Australia are ranked 20th in the world, the target would not seem unreasonable. Scratch the surface, however, and the Socceroos' chances of emerging from Group D -- arguably the toughest with Germany, Serbia and Ghana -- look bleaker.

Like his predecessor and fellow Dutchman Guus Hiddink, Verbeek will rely on a core of Europe-based players who won admirers in Germany with their pressing game and refusal to be intimidated by better-known sides.

But players who were spring-heeled in their mid- to late-20s are now in the twilight of their careers. No fewer than nine of Verbeek's likely starting side, including midfielders Tim Cahill and Brett Emerton and defenders Lucas Neill and Scott Chipperfield, are in their thirties.

Several have had large portions of their European seasons interrupted by injuries and a question mark remains over forward Harry Kewell, 31, who had groin surgery earlier in the year.

Midfield enforcer Vince Grella and playmaker Mark Bresciano have also played precious little football in the lead-up to the finals.

In his absence, Josh Kennedy, a beanpole striker unveiled by Hiddink at the German finals and now playing for Nagoya in Japan's top flight, is expected to lead the line.

Despite flashes of brilliance during qualifying, Kennedy struggled in a stint with Karlsruhe in the Bundesliga although his record of six goals in 17 internationals is respectable.

(Editing by Robert Woodward)