By Steve Wilson
Australia’s Tim Cahill remains on course to appear at a fourth straight World Cup Finals. (AAP: David Moir)
For Socceroos coach Bert van Marwijk, it seems, form is fleeting but class has permanence.
How else to explain a preference in his World Cup squad for a 38-year-old forward who has played 63 minutes of football across 10 English second-tier games this calendar year, over a man who has scored at a rate of a goal every other game over the same period?
Jamie Maclaren, the man to miss out, had a weekend of contrasting emotions.
Informed he had been cut from van Marwijk’s World Cup group — trimmed from 32 to 26 — he then struck a hat-trick in Hibernian’s 5-5 draw with Rangers in the Scottish Premier League.
Jamie Maclaren has been in fine goalscoring form for Scottish side Hibernian this year but misses the cut. (REUTERS: Russell Cheyne, file photo)
That took him to eight goals from 15 matches at Easter Road after a loan move from SV Darmstadt, whom he left Brisbane Roar for last winter before enduring a difficult half season in Germany.
Tim Cahill has seen less meaningful action of late, but appears to have survived the cut on the back of his past contributions and a belief that, even as the sun is setting on his domestic career, he still has the force of personality to offer something off the bench at a fourth consecutive World Cup.
It is an argument, Maclaren’s exclusion aside, that retains merit. Especially for a side lacking depth of options at the top end of the pitch.
Van Marwijk himself recently described Cahill as a “special case”.
His ability to produce on the grand occasion — something he reminded fans and the coaches about without subtlety via his social media channels this month — is legend.
As recently as October last year he was called to play 120 minutes of a play-off against Syria, scoring both the equaliser and extra-time winner when Australia’s place at Russia was in the balance.
Age may have robbed him of pace. And match sharpness is a concern after half a year on the Millwall bench.
But he fastidiously looks after his body and his general fitness stacks up favourably against most players of his vintage.
Tim Cahill has been the face of Australian football for more than a decade. (Reuters: Edgar Su)
In 10-20 minute bursts — all he will be asked to contribute when a goal is needed to rescue or win a match — he is unlikely to be exposed.
Perhaps more important, however, are his qualities of leadership. Cahill has embraced his elder statesman role and his World Cup experience places him uniquely to mentor others.
It is, however, unlikely that Cahill’s name would be in the conversation if Australia were blessed with striking options.
Tomi Juric has a single figure return for his Swiss club this season, Nikita Rukavytsya is far from prolific for Maccabi Haifa. Contenders do not run much deeper than that.
Maclaren deserves to be aggrieved by Socceroos omission
The luckless Maclaren appears to have fallen victim, then, to van Marwijk’s preferred tactical approach.
In his two friendlies to date — defeat to Norway and a draw with Colombia — the Dutchman has fielded teams with just a single striker, supported by men in the wide attacking positions.
Maclaren is a poacher who likes to play off the shoulder of defenders, breaking in to space behind them.
Juric offers more in holding up the ball, something that van Marwijk is possibly mindful of with Australia expected to be on the back foot in games against higher-ranked opposition in the form of France, Denmark and Peru.
Nabbout’s physical presence, too, is a quality well suited to the game plan. His stand-out season with the Newcastle Jets that earned him a move to Asian Champions Urawa Red Diamonds in Japan makes for a strong case to be ahead of Maclaren in the pecking order.
Maclaren was deemed an unnecessary understudy.
However, Maclaren’s recent record means he can still feel aggrieved to have been denied a call to the squad’s training camp in Turkey. No chance afforded him to put his case in front of the manger before the final cut is made in early June, when three more names will be scratched off the list.
Alongside Maclaren, sympathy must also be extended to Bailey Wright and goalkeeper Mitch Langerak.
Wright has captained Bristol City to mid-table respectability in the English Championship and was a regular across the qualification process.
He has lost out to a combination of the coach’s view of Mark Milligan as a centre-back rather than midfielder, and a failed audition for the problematic right back position in defeat to Norway.
That position will now be filled by either Fran Karacic, a Croatian under-21 international who qualifies for the Socceroos through his Australian-born father, or Sydney FC defensive midfielder Josh Brillante.
Langerak was vying for the number one spot under Postecoglou, but a combination of limited game time in Germany and Spain and Brad Jones’ return to favour under the new coach has cost him.
Those strong decisions speak of a new coach who has quickly and ruthlessly identified areas of weakness and solutions to them.
There is clearly no room for sentiment in the thinking of a manager who has a simple brief of advancing through the group stage of a single tournament and nothing beyond in terms of development.
In that environment, accusations that Cahill’s inclusion owes more to his commercial value to the marketing team at Football Federation Australia — as obvious as they are — appear less than convincing.
Van Marwijk sees value in a player even as he is on the cusp of retirement — he believes he can be an asset both in the sheds and, if required, on the pitch.
The clock is running down on “Timmy time”. But dramatic late interventions are Cahill’s stock-in-trade. There may be one more left to come.