The FIFA World Cup™ dreams of Australia and Serbia ended in Nelspruit on Wednesday, in a match that threw up a fascinating clash of styles. And though it was Radomir Antic's side who played most attractive football and had the majority of possession, it was Pim Verbeek's charges who packed a bigger punch, winning 2-1 to end their opponents' chances of reaching Round of 16.
The difference in the footballing philosophies on show was evident. While the Aussies invariably took only two or three passes to find the Balkan side’s penalty box, the eastern Europeans were far more measured in their approach, playing an intricate passing and dribbling game and attempting to get the most out of their cultured midfield, with Dejan Stankovic excelling again.
As a result of their patient play, Serbia had no fewer than 23 shots, although only six of them were on target. Choosing to exploit the pace of Milos Krasic and then Zdravko Kuzmanovic down the right flank, Antic’s men often ignored the long ball up to Nikola Zigic, a tactic their more direct opponents would surely have employed had the beanpole striker been on their side.
The problem for the Serbians was that they when they did not over-elaborate, they came up against an inspired Mark Schwarzer, though their first-half pressure did force Verbeek to make a tactical change at half-time.
“The boss asked us to push forward more,” Budweiser Man of the Match Tim Cahill told FIFA.com after emerging from the dressing room. “He asked us to attack and get the ball up front quickly.” The Socceroos followed Verbeek’s instructions to the letter of the law, taking the lead 21 minutes from time when the Everton forward headed home a long cross.
Australia's direct style yielded another goal moments later, putting the game beyond the reach of their more cultured opponents, although Marko Pantelic did reduce the deficit with six minutes remaining.
“We created a huge amount of chances but we just couldn’t take them, and now we have to go home,” said a regretful Antic, digesting the most painful lesson in football: namely that silky build-up play means nothing if it does not produce goals.
“That was our best game,” lamented a similarly deflated Kuzmanovic. “It’s a shame we couldn’t take our chances. We are all feeling very flat.”