For Australia to win the Asian Cup in its first appearance, Liverpool’s Harry Kewell needs to start every game, score plenty of goals and be player of the tournament.
More than any other individual in the 23-man squad, the Sydney-born winger holds a golden key to the Socceroos’ success.
Australia’s surprisingly shaky 3-0 warm-up victory over Singapore underlined Kewell’s overall importance.
When he was brought on as a second-half substitute, Graham Arnold’s side was holding an undeserved 1-0 lead against the 131st ranked hosts. But within 10 minutes of running onto the National Stadium, he’d squeezed a shot past Singapore goalkeeper Lionel Lewis for his 8th international goal.
And then, two minutes before full-time he produced a dazzling piece of individual skill before setting up Australia’s final goal for former Leeds United team-mate, Mark Viduka.
Because of the club versus country conflicts, Kewell has sometimes been a reluctant Socceroo he’s made just 24 appearances in 11 years. But whenever he does pull on the green and gold shirt, he seems to grow in stature, especially in games that really count.
And for all his winner’s medals at Liverpool including those fleeting, injury-wrecked appearances in finals, the truth is that, in Australia, his career will probably be remembered more for what he achieved on the international stage.
From scoring as a teenager in both legs of the 1998 World Cup play-off against Iran, to providing the spark in 2005 as a first half substitute against Uruguay in Australia’s decisive step in its first successful World Cup campaign in 32 years. And then there was that goal against Croatia in Stuttgart that took the Aussies through to the last 16 of Germany 2006.
With a slight hint of offside, Kewell struck in the 79th minute to give the Socceroos a 2-2 draw and a vital point to join the holders Brazil in advancing from a tough Group F that also included Asian champions, Japan.
An hour later, in a packed and buzzing media conference room at the Gottlieb-Daimler Stadium, he emerged with jubilant coach Guus Hiddink. I asked Kewell if his equaliser was the most important goal he’d ever scored.
He paused for a moment and then slowly nodded his head: ‘Yes, It’s the most important goal for me so far in my career,’ he said.
As it turned out, Australia’s third group match at the World Cup was Kewell’s last competitive appearance in 10 months because of foot and leg injuries.
Indeed, his absence from the Italy game that followed proved costly as Australia failed to find the killer punch to knock out the 10-man Azzuri in Kaiserslautern before Francesco Totti scored a disputed penalty with the last kick of the game.
Just like in the World Cup, Australia gets a Harry Kewell who’s fresh, motivated and got plenty to prove after yet another season of inactivity. Sensibly, Kewell is likely to play a more central role instead of being a traditional winger at the Asian Cup.
Turning 29 in September and facing quick Asian teams in hot and humid conditions on potentially slow pitches, Kewell won’t be able to run past defenders at will in the way he did in those exciting early days at Leeds United.
But a partnership of Kewell, slightly behind striker Viduka, and backed up by midfielders like Everton‘s Tim Cahill, Serie-A stars Mark Bresciano and Vince Grella plus PSV’s Jason Culina, could intimidate opponents.
Certainly with a lightweight defensive unit missing veterans like Craig Moore, Scott Chipperfield and the retired Tony Popovic, Australia will be more likely to win games 3-2 than 1-0.
And, as West Ham‘s Lucas Neill points out, the conditions won’t allow the Socceroos to play the same non-stop, energetic, pressing style that earned them unexpected success in Germany. This time, they’ll have to forget their traditional tag as upstarts and dominate possession from the opening kick-off.
For that to happen, Australia’s number 10 needs to be unwrapped from the cotton wool and be allowed to start all three of the group games in Bangkok.
Kewell himself has said that he’s never felt better physically and hinted that he doesn’t see himself as merely an impact player.
Coach Graham Arnold should take note. Because history has shown what can happen when Cool Harry is fit, motivated and ready to rock and roll.