Both McDonald and Carle have been victims of the Coach’s 4-2-3-1 system, with neither man finding a comfortable role in the formation according to Verbeek, while North’s lack of first team football is what brought about his failure to make the final 23 or even the 28-man travelling selection. McDonald, a prolific scorer in his days in Scotland, has so far failed to reproduce his club form on the international stage, or, in truth, when he has ventured out of the Scottish Premier League. After 93 goals in 196 games for Motherwell and Celtic, McDonald got off to a rocky start south of the border with Middlesbrough, including a missed penalty that could have salvaged a point from Blackpool, having left Glasgow in the January transfer window. McDonald eventually found his feet at the Riverside, scoring three times in four games as the season drew to a close. Any hopes that momentum would carry into Australia’s World Cup preparations were dashed when a lacklustre performance in Australia’s 2-1 win over New Zealand on Monday brought an end to the 26-year-old’s World Cup dream.
Verbeek was quick to point out McDonald had been dropped for tactical reasons, arguing the former Southampton striker did not fit into his plans: “Scotty is a typical two-striker player, and that’s where he feels happy also, but we don’t play with two strikers. We play with one striker up top and wingers, so Scotty doesn’t fit in this system.” Harry Kewell will then be Australia’s first-choice forward this summer, but given the Galatasaray star’s well-documented injury problems, relying on his questionable fitness to provide the goals to see off Germany, Serbia and Ghana is risky to say the least. Joshua Kennedy and Nikita Rukavytsya remain with the group to provide further attacking options, yet Kennedy, at 6’4” is more of a Plan B to be thrown on when a goal is desperately needed, while Rukavytsya has just three caps to his name. McDonald, with 16 appearances for the national team, may yet to have broken his duck but he offers more experience than the 22-year-old Rukavytsya, while having played at a higher level than Kennedy, who trawled Germany’s lower leagues with little success before landing in Japan at Nagoya Grampus.
Bret Holman, scorer of the winning goal against Ricki Herbert’s Kiwis can also play as a forward, but the lack of firepower heaps more pressure on to the shoulders of talisman Tim Cahill. Never one to shirk a challenge, Cahill will relish the task and Australia’s hopes rest on getting the Everton midfielder into dangerous positions but he still requires able support from his fellow attackers. With Brett Emerton and Mark Bresciano likely to start alongside Cahill in a three-pronged back-up to Kewell, it remains to be seen if the former Liverpool player can cause top-class international defences enough problems to create the space for Cahill to ghost into from deep. Emerton and Bresciano will provide the crosses but against the might of Germany in particular, and giant centre-back Per Mertesacker especially, a Cahill-Kewell partnership might simply be overpowered. Kennedy would give the 6’6” Weder Bremen defender more of an aerial challenge, but Kewell’s place as Australia’s central, starting forward seems set in stone.
The Socceroos have a handful of remaining warm-up games, against Denmark on June 1 and United States on June 5, both in South Africa, and by then the final 23 should be decided. Youngsters Tommy Oar and James Holland, both midfielders, are unlikely to make the cut but Verbeek has said those players discarded from here on will remain with the group for experience, and Oar and Holland are two hot prospects who, in time, will greatly contribute to future Socceroos campaigns. Sadly for Verbeek – or whoever replaces the Dutchman after the tournament – a solution to the striking conundrum remains as distant as ever.