Sunday 17 December 2017 / 11:38 AM

BOX-TO-BOX: INTERNATIONAL EDITION

With the EPL on pause, we turn our attention to the global game, address some of the biggest storylines in the lead up to the World Cup and check in on the progress of the other major competitions.

Australia World Cup dream at an apex

Before we go global we start at home: the Socceroos are on the verge of progressing to the next stage of qualifications, pending the result in the second leg of their showdown with Syria. The first game of the pivotal match-up was a mixed bag — a strong first half was compromised by a weak beginning to the second, before completely falling off and conceding a frustrating, and genuinely unlucky penalty.

The result was a fair indication of a match that lived on both ends of the spectrum: spearheaded by the creative talents of Aaron Mooy, Australia created plenty of half-chances but were wasteful, and at times frustratingly careless. The failure to convert outside their lone goal at the end of the first — Leckie skinning his defender with a sharp cut-back before sending a ball spiralling towards the opportunistic stride of Robbie Kruse — is alarming, equally so the lack of stamina allowing Syria to utterly dominate the final third of the match, completely dictating play whilst the Roos held on for dear life.

The keys need to be handed over to Mooy completely. He’s quite clearly the best creative force, and his sensational form pulling the strings for Huddersfield in the Premier League is evidence of his ability. If the Socceroos want to take another step forward, he’s their best option, and the formation — one that has largely improved despite some strange use of specific talents (Luongo as a 10, for example) — should be constructed around letting Mooy call the shots. Even still, back at home on a flat, dry track, and considering the convincing upper hand of the first 65 minutes, the Socceroos should get the job done comfortably.

End of an Era?

The Netherlands have remained a consistent force in international football and Argentina houses some of the finest players in the world, yet both are on the verge of missing qualification.

Argentina’s dependence on Messi has become somewhat crippling: no Argentine has scored in a competitive match for over a year aside from the maestro, a concerning stat that has had an obvious, detrimental effect. The formation they’ve employed straddles the line between totally relying on Messi and using him as the spearhead, an issue that has marginalised the surrounding talent.

And even that explanation isn’t as dire as the reality. This is a team blessed with some of the finest attacking talents in the world — Di Maria, Dybala, Banegea and Aguero (now injured) are phenomenally great and perennially dangerous for their club teams — yet there is a fit problem that has held them way back. Their road is tough, but far from impossible, but if they continue on their current path, they won’t make any noise in the competition even if they barely scrape in. Changes need to be made.

The Dutch issue is on the total other end of the spectrum: in a strange turn of events for such a consistently strong unit, the Dutch team appears comparatively devoid of world-class talent.

A squad usually blessed with top-flight stars is struggling to match their usual output, with Van Dijk and Robben the only certifiable world-class caliber players. In competition, that shouldn’t equate to an inability to get through qualifications, but the drop-off has seemed to overwhelm those expected to pick up the slack, so much that the team’s once reliable identity has crumbled around them.

After a sustained period as an international heavyweight, and in Argentina’s case failing to capitalise on immense potential, it’s clear the tide has turned. Even if they both find their way to Russia in 2018, it’s looking increasingly unlikely they’ll make a dent in the tournament.

Around the leagues

BUNDESLIGA

Borussia Dortmund have capitalised well on Bayern Munich’s comparatively — and by their own immense standards — ‘slow’ start to open up a five-point lead after seven games, only a draw with Freiburg preventing them from boasting a perfect record. Their blistering attack has notched 21 goals (and their persistent press only conceding two!), spearheaded by the terrific, pacey forward Aubameyang, who will continue to draw interest from the big clubs with his stellar form, his eight-goal output only matched by Bayern behemoth Robert Lewandowski.

Among the early disappointments are usual hot-beds for young German talent in Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, all struggling to reach their regular levels of success in the wake of heavy turnover of young talent. They’ve managed a disappointing 10, 8, and 7 points respectively through their opening seven fixtures and will be disappointed with their weak form.

LIGUE 1

Despite enormous roster turnover in the wake of their successful campaign last season, Monaco have done exceptionally well to hold pace with PSG, sitting only one win behind the star-studded powerhouse, with their clash at the end of November a potentially season-defining match for both franchises.

PSG have been as dangerous as advertised, racking up an insane 27 goals already whilst looking far superior to all opponents. Anyone doubting Neymar’s worth after the initial news was somewhat merited, but two months in it’s clear he’s worth every penny. Alongside fellow recruit Kyle Mbappe and stalwart Edison Cavani, they’ve formed the most potent front three in world football and are a developing into a threat to challenge for the Champions League trophy.

SERIE A

It’s often hard, especially for those that may not be regular viewers of Serie A or only catch them in the Champions league, to see any deviation in Juventus’ style. But despite their defensive fortitude that remains a part of their identity, the loss of Chellini forced a realignment of their tactics that have found them more comfortable to push up the field.

They sit behind Napoli (who have been exceptional to take away maximum points) and tied with Inter Milan, but should be considered strong favourites to storm home if they can find their feet and manage their heavy schedule.

LA LIGA

“Barcelona in crisis!”, “How will Barcelona ever cope without ‘MSN’?” “They need find replacements immediately!”. Whilst it was all an overblown media reaction in the wake of a gigantic transfer, the claims are downright laughable now.

Barcelona have romped to 7-0, recalibrating their style around a brutish midfield and relying on Messi and Suarez to carry the load up front. They have naturally assumed the lead, with Atletico Madrid, much in a similar vein to Juventus, putting out quality at their usual expected standard, trailing just behind.

The other obvious talking point is Real Madrid, who sit fourth after a slow start in lieu of a dominant showing in the preseason. Whilst the lead isn’t insurmountable, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Madrid fair better in the Champions League than the domestic competition, an understandable (but disappointing) circumstance considering their current standing.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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