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Watch: Croatia showing signs of a top contender, says Muscat

Video: Chris Sant Fournier

Despite never representing Australia in a World Cup, Kevin Muscat boasts a lot of international experience having played for the Socceroos in two FIFA Confederations Cup editions. While he is hopeful that Australia can be more competitive in the near future, the former Wolves defender spoke to Gianluca Lia about the ongoing World Cup and the development of the game at Down Under…

Kevin Muscat had a very colourful career both as a coach and a player.

A hard-tackling defender, Muscat has never shied of a challenge and despite his aggressive temperament he still made a career in British football where he played for Crystal Palace, Wolves and Millwall apart from a successful spell at Rangers where he won the treble in season 2002-03.

After announcing his retirement, Muscat went straight into management and he has managed to transfer his winning mentality to his players after this season he won his second A-League Championship medal when he led Melbourne Victory to glory.

In the last three weeks, Muscat was on a short holiday in Malta with his family but that didn’t stop him from following Australia and the other protagonists at the 2018 World Cup and after two weeks of play he has already identified the favourite to lift the trophy.

“Personally, I see Croatia as one of the favourites to win the World Cup because they impressed me a lot and are showing signs of a great team,” Muscat told The Sunday Times of Malta.

“They really clicked into gear in their opening three games of the tournament and have been performing up to the highest standards in a constant way.

“England are also performing well and it is nice to see because there is almost a general acceptance that if this team can play well, they can even lose because they are entertaining the fans and Gareth Southgate is doing an impressive job so far.”

Heading to their World Cup campaign, Australia were looking for answers with Bert Van Marwijk at the helm, but after finishing bottom in Group C, their journey in Russia left more questions than answers, according to Melbourne Victory coach.

“I think the general consensus about this World Cup is that we had a disappointing tournament because although we were in a tough group, there was no development in our gameplay,” the former Australia international said.

“The mentality in this tournament was like that we are satisfied with an honourable defeat and after qualifying for four straight World Cups, I think it was time to do some progress in terms of quality.”

Ange Postecoglou steered Australia towards qualification despite facing some rough patches, which at one point almost compromised their path towards Russia.

In their intercontinental play-off against Honduras, Australia gave the impression that they had reached their peak ahead of the tournament as they dominated the Concacaf side in both legs despite needing two penalties in the return game to claim the spoils.

However, the 2015 Asian Cup winning coach, left his post days after the qualification because in his own words, “it took a toll on him both personally and professionally.”

“With Ange in charge of the national team in Russia, things could have been different because looking back at what he did, winning the Asian Cup and the commanding displays in the Confederations Cup, one could notice the progress that this squad had made,” Muscat said.  “For example, against Chile in the previous World Cup, the fans could see the fighting spirit, determination and positive football that Australia put up despite not being the end product.

“For me to have the team playing with such hunger would have represented a marked progress from previous years.”

Still Muscat does not blame the Australian FA for such situation.

“I think that end of the day, Ange decided himself to leave and he has his own strong compelling reasons albeit earning Australia its fourth straight World Cup berth,” the 44-year underlined.

“It was unfortunate that maybe his ideas of football were not aligned with others but that is down to how success is viewed and maybe that is what has triggered Ange.”

With Van Marwijk to leave Australia’s post, former Sydney manager Graham Arnold is set to takeover as Australia manager for a second time.

Arnold and Muscat have a particular relationship as the current Melbourne Victory coach played under the newly-appointed Australia mentor in the national team in 2006.

Moreover, since Muscat embarked in coaching, both coaches offered a great spectacle on the field whenever Sydney and Melbourne faced each other in what is called the Sky Blue derby.

“He deserves his opportunity because in the last four years, he managed to win four trophies at Sydney just like I managed to do at Melbourne,” the former Wolves defender said.

“Graham Arnold has a difficult task ahead in picking up the pieces of the Australian national team and I am sure that he will be targeting the 2019 Asian Cup.”

With the evergreen Tim Cahill not deemed as fully fit, Andrew Nabbout was his number nine replacement in the first two games in Russia, in a 4-4-1-1 shape before suffering a shoulder injury against Denmark which will sideline him for the next six months.

Based on what he did in the past 12 months, scoring 10 goals in 22 A-League games for the emergent Newcastle Jets before losing the Grand Final against Muscat’s Melbourne Victory, a lot of responsibility was handed to Nabbout but he failed to find the net whenever he was called in action.

“I think Australia is aware that they lack a proven goal scorer in its ranks,” Muscat explained.

“Andrew got an unbelievable opportunity to play for Australia on such a platform and given his performances in the past year, I think they looked at him as the real deal.

“It was difficult for him to score because he was not really called into action in situations which favour his characteristics, but he is still an important player because at club level he really did a great job.”

Josip Skoko celebrates scoring the first goal for Australia with Brett Emerton and Kevin Muscat (no.2).Josip Skoko celebrates scoring the first goal for Australia with Brett Emerton and Kevin Muscat (no.2).

Holistic improvement

Asked on what he thought was necessary to have a holistic improvement of the game in Australia, Muscat said:  “Lately, there has been some steady improvements in our game, for example in the domestic league there is the possibility of expansion teams and I think that will help because it spreads more quality across the teams.

“Another issue would be the salary cap, which if there is a way to abolish it completely, I would support it because that would enable Australian teams to bring in more quality players.

“The competitive landscape is not very even currently as besides the usual competition from traditional nations such as Japan, China and South Korea, there are other emerging nations who are heavily investing into the game such as Thailand and Malaysia.”

The A-League has always been a championship willing to apply innovations and in fact it was the first league that welcomed the VAR technology, which is also being utilised at the World Cup.

“In Australia it is different from the World Cup because we do not have enough resources to view actions from different angles, so it feels like it is half-ready,” Muscat explained.

“In the World Cup, I saw some level of delay which I think it is too much for our game because it removes the jubilation of the players and the fans.

“I understand that mistakes will effect games but we all do mistakes, why not the referees as well.”

 

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