Australia V Bahrain - Preview

The Socceroos will take a step into the big unknown on Thursday morning (2.15am) AEDT, when it plays Bahrain in their opening qualification match for a place at the 2007 Asian Cup.

The Socceroos will take a step into the big unknown on Thursday morning (2.15am) AEDT, when it plays Bahrain in their opening qualification match for a place at the 2007 Asian Cup.

The unknown factor is just how much harder it will be for Australia to qualify for major tournaments, compared to when it was part of the Oceania Football Confederation, where it was expected to qualify with relative ease in most cases.

Already the Qantas Joeys (Under 17s) have found out how tough it will be, knocked out by Laos in attempting to qualify for the Asian Under 17 Championships later this year.

However it-s at a senior level where it all really counts and Australia has been placed in a difficult group against three West Asian countries that will be keen to show the new boys just how tough it will be to qualify for these tournaments.

Our opening match of the qualifying tournament couldn-t be tougher, with Bahrain still smarting from its narrow loss to Trinidad & Tobago for a place at the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany. And to prove how much this game means to them, they will be at full strength for the clash with all its overseas stars returning for the match.

The same cannot be said for an Australian team that features only six players from the squad that defeated Uruguay last November and secured a place in Germany at the World Cup Finals. There is no doubt this match will test the depth of our playing list.

However, this is a World Cup year and the fact that places are up for grabs in the squad, will mean that whoever takes the park for Australia, will be extremely keen to make an impression on the Australian coaching staff. This is their big chance, and if they can pull off a result against sixth-ranked Asian nation (Australia is 5th) the players will only boost their chances of making the final World Cup squad.

Socceroos coach Graham Arnold is keeping his starting line-up close to his chest, but has indicated in training that an attacking 3-4-3 formation will be the preferred option.

Archie Thompson, called in at the last moment after being released by PSV Eindhoven for the match, is likely to start up front and supported by the likes of Ahmad Elrich, David Carney and Alex Brosque on the flanks. All four possess loads of pace and will be looking to get in behind the Bahraini defence at every opportunity. Scott McDonald and Brett Holman will also be champing at the bit to get a run and both have been scoring regularly in their respective competitions.

Australia-s most experienced player in the squad Josip Skoko, will pull the strings in midfield, with Luke Wilkshire the most likely player to play alongside him. Alvin Ceccoli is a strong candidate for the left wing-back role, while Jade North is likely to fill the right side role.

At the back, the absence of Tony Vidmar, will mean that Australia will have one of its most inexperienced defence lines in years. However in Michael Beauchamp and Michael Valkanis, Arnold has probably the two best defenders from the Hyundai A-League at his disposal and they have been central to their teams finals charge. Indeed the pair could be partners on Thursday morning and foes come next Sunday when Central Coast Mariners travels to play Adelaide United in the Preliminary Final. Romanian-based pair of Jon McKain and Michael Thwaite are in line as well, but going against them is that they not played a lot of competitive football recently, especially Thwaite who is on the outer with his club FC National.

The late arrival of Michael Petkovic will not have helped his cause in the battle for the goalkeepers spot, with Ante Covic the likely choice to start.

Bahrain know this game is probably their most important of the six qualifiers, as a good result will set them up nicely for a top two finish, which is needed in order to qualify for the Finals next year. They have been preparing for this game for the past month and have recently played two friendly games against Syria and Palestine, although results were not exactly confidence-boosting.

A 1-1 draw with Syria in January was followed by a 2-0 loss against Palestine last week, although in the loss to Palestine they were without their 11 overseas-based stars. In their past 10 starts, they have only won twice, while they have had five draws and three losses, including two at home.

Australia has never met Bahrain at a senior level before, with the only previous clashes with the small island nation coming at the Under 17 level, a home and away qualifier for the 1999 FIFA U/17 World Championships. Australia, which featured Qantas Socceroo squad members Scott McDonald and Jade North, won through after winning 1-0 in Bahrain and eventually went onto make the final of the World Championships against Brazil.   The match can be seen live on SBS from 2.15am (AEDT) to all centres around Australia. Check local guides for your time zone. will also have a Live Match Update of the game, for those fans who can't watch the game on TV.