Taking on Kevin Muscat is never the best of ideas. Not on the pitch, not on the sidelines, and certainly not when his team is in a slump and needs every player it has to climb off the canvas.
But that’s exactly what Olyroo coach Aurelio Vidmar has done in picking five Melbourne Victory players for the Australian under-23 squad trying to qualify for the Rio Olympics next year.
Ex-Socceroo Vidmar – a national teammate of Muscat’s through the 1990s and early 200s – makes no bones about why he had to gut Victory’s squad during a crucial A-League period as he tries to guide Australia to an Olympic Games berth.
“It’s always a difficult conversation to have but one we have had,” Vidmar said in a telephone hook-up with journalists on Wednesday as he spoke of having to tell the Victory coach that he would take so many of his players.
“It’s never ideal, I understand their frustrations and it’s never a great situation.
“But we have to press forward and go to these qualifiers with our best available 23 players,” Vidmar said.
“It’s really important for Australian football to qualify [for the Rio Olympics].
“It’s also really important for these players in their pathway for developing in the Australian way. Ange [Postecoglou, the Socceroos coach] has said there are spots up for grabs in the March qualifiers and that’s a massive incentive,” he added, pointing out that for any who made the grade Australia had the Confederations Cup and possibly the World Cup to look forward to over the next three years.
Victory supplies five of Vidmar’s 23-man squad, including four defenders who have either featured as regulars in Muscat’s first team (Jason Geria) or been used regularly off the bench or as occasional starters (Thomas Deng, Giancarlo Gallifuouco, Scott Galloway). He has also picked front man Conor Pain, another who usually figures as a substitute.
The Olympic qualifying tournament is to be staged in Doha, Qatar, between January 14 and 30.
It features 16 teams in four groups of four: the top two in each progress through to the quarter-finals, where the competition continues in knockout form.
The two finalists qualify for Rio, while the two beaten semi-finalists play off in a winner-take-all match which will settle third place and the final Asian qualifying spot for the Olympics.
The Olyroos are grouped with the UAE, who are their first opponents on January 14, Vietnam (January 17) and Jordan (January 20).
Vidmar’s hand has to some extent been forced by the unavailability of six first-choice players he would have selected had their European clubs released them.
They are Milos Degenek (from 1860 Munich in Germany), Liverpool’s Brad Smith, Scottish-based Jackson Irvine (Ross County), Sparta Rotterdam’s Kenneth Dougall, former Adelaide United winger Awer Mabil (FC Midtjylland in Denmark) and Ryan Williams, of English League One club Barnsley.
Because the Olympic qualifying tournament is not covered by a FIFA international window, clubs are under no obligation to release players. A-League sides have no option because they have to under their licence agreements with FFA.
Victory is by far the hardest hit A-League club, although Brisbane Roar loses three players, including two front-line strikers in Jamie Maclaren and Brandon Borello as well as defender James Donachie.
Sydney loses two – Alex Gersbach and Andrew Hoole – while Central Coast will be without goalkeeper Paul Izzo and Melbourne City will be missing improving young midfielder Stefan Mauk.
Still, Vidmar does have some experienced players at his disposal, including several who have won caps for the full national team – Lazio’s Chris Ikonomidis, Italian-based Josh Brillante (Como), Adam Taggart of Scottish club Dundee United, and Greek club Paok’s Terry Antonis – as well overseas-based Daniel de Silva (Roda JC Kerkrade in the Netherlands) and Denmark-based Mustafa Amini, who have yet to play for the national senior team.
“We have taken the group through an important journey with qualifying, camps and friendly matches but this is a step up in class that they have to take in their development as international football players,” said Vidmar.
The squad will travel to Dubai for a seven-day camp before their opening match on January 14.
OLYROOS SQUAD: Mustafa Amini, Terry Antonis, Brandon Borello, Josh Brillante, Cameron Burgess, Daniel De Silva, Thomas Deng, James Donachie, Jack Duncan, Ryan Edwrds, Giancarlo Gallifuoco, Scott Galloway, Jason Geria, Alex Gersbach, Andrew Hoole, Chris Ikonomidis, Paul Izzo, Aaron Lennox, Jamie Maclaren, Stefan Mauk, Connor Pain, Adam Taggart, Steven Ugarkovic
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