Australia's coach Osieck reacts during a friendly soccer match against France in Paris

Australia fires head coach, but problems likely to persist

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Let’s consider the implications of this tweet from Tim Cahill:

[tweet https://twitter.com/Tim_Cahill/status/388812875315572737 width=280]

That was the Australian international reacting to news his national team had fired their head coach, Holger Osieck. The German boss had steered the Socceroos through Asian World Cup Qualifying but had also been at the helm to two straight 6-0 defeats (to Brazil and France). After Friday’s thrashing, the former Fenerbahçe, Urawa Red Diamonds, and Canadian national team boss was dismissed ahead of a Tuesday friendly against the Canucks.

The decision wasn’t much of a surprise. Holger was asked about the possibility in Paris after the latest loss, ultimately admitting the lopsided results provided “food for discussion.” On Australian television, former Australian international Mark Bosnich said “Holger would do the right thing” and “walk away,” while Robbie Slater, another former Socceroo said “[the Football Federation Australia] need to sack him.”

But back to Cahill’s tweet – a piece of loyal if contrarian sentiment. One implication would be anything that happens on the field after Australia qualifies for a World Cup should be overlooked, a slightly paradoxical sentiment considering the team was disappointed not to have made it out of their group in South Africa. Aspiring to contend for a final 16 spot in Brazil, Australia’s form over the next eight months is fair game. That they’ve been demolished by two likely World Cup teams (France has yet to qualify) hints the team’s not ready to match their federation’s ambition.

Which, as it turns out, is exactly why the FFA let him go:

The FFA Chairman Frank Lowy AC said the long-term interests of Australian football were paramount in making the change.

“The decision is based on the longer term issues of the rejuvenation of the Socceroos team and the preparations for the World Cup and the Asian Cup,” said Lowy.

“FFA has set a strategic objective of having a highly competitive team in Brazil and then handing over a team capable of winning the Asian Cup on home soil in January 2015.

“We have come to the conclusion that change is necessary to meet those objectives.

It’s difficult to argue Australia was on a path to be “highly competitive” in Brazil. Thus, Osieck was let go, though by that standard, it’s unclear why he lasted this long.

In the 2010 cycle, Australia — debuting in Asian qualifying — surprised many by breezing through qualifying. Under Guus Hiddink disciple Pim Verbeek, the Socceroos won six and drew two in eight final round qualifiers, finishing five points ahead of Japan in Asia’s group A. For a team that was taking a huge step up in competition, moving to the confederation from Oceania, it was an unexpectedly dominant performance. In those final eight games, they only conceded once.

There was something strange about their run, though – something that needed to be corrected before this cycle. In moving to Asia, Australia brought a new, physical, direct style to the region characterized by that’s come to be dominated by Japan and South Korea’s combination of acumen, technique, fitness, and speed. Perhaps underestimating what Australia brought, Asia failed to adjust, a naivete that was unlikely to last beyond a single cycle.

This time around, Australia won only three of their eight final round qualifiers, finishing four points behind Japan. Thanks to four draws (and only one loss), they beat Jordan to Group B’s second automatic qualifying spot, but having allowed seven goals in eight games, their dominance was clearly over. Teams had adjusted.

source: Getty Images
Guus Hiddink, seem here as coach of Russian Premier League club Anzhi Makhachkala, led Australia to the Round of 16 at Germany 2006. The Dutchman is favored to return to Australia in the wake of Holger Osieck’s dismissal. (Photo: Getty Images.)

But if that was the only problem for Osieck, the 65-year-old, Australia could have adjusted. The confounding problem: Australia just doesn’t have the horses. They’re still relying on Lucas Neill (35 years old). Mark Bresciano, Brett Holman, Matt McKay, Luke Wilshire, and Mile Jedinak — all 29 or older — are mainstays, while Tim Cahill (33) remains a focal point.  Though some of these players have regressed from club roles in Europe, they remain key players for Australia.

And as their already limited squad has aged, few new talents have picked up the torch. Players like Robbie Kruse, James Holland, Nikita Rukavytsya, and Rhys Williams have their virtues, but none of them are going to push the team to the next level. Even with somebody like Tommy Oar (21) getting more time, Australia still lacks the individual talents to meet their federation’s ambition. once you factor in the age of the team’s core, the Socceroos look weaker than they did for 2010.

Perhaps that’s the argument to retain Osieck — that Australia just isn’t that good — but the FFA obviously disagrees, creating a no-win scenario for their coach. And in the FFA’s defense, back-to-back 6-0 losses are unacceptable. Even this limited squad should be playing much better.

But if Australia is hoping Guus Hiddink, the man immediately linked with a return to the job, can change their direction, they’re likely mistaken. Not only did the former Socceroos boss ultimately disappoint with Russia and Turkey, but he won’t have a chance to restock Australia’s shelves ahead of Brazil 2014.

Maybe the Dutchman can conjure some South Korea in 2002, Australia in 2006 magic. More likely: He’ll finally give the FFA reason to realize Australia’s limitations.

UEL: Saint-Etienne hope Beric comes to the rescue vs. Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United and Kevin Monnet-Paquet of Saint-Etienne in action during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) While Zlatan Ibrahimovic was scoring a hat trick in Manchester United’s win over Saint-Etienne in the Europa League last week, Robert Beric’s 11-minute substitute appearance at Old Trafford was barely noticed.

Still reeling from a hamstring injury, Beric’s cameo had little impact as Ibrahimovic ended Saint-Etienne’s 10-game unbeaten run in Europe by 3-0.

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Beric’s condition has improved since the heavy loss, and he featured in a French league game in Montpellier last weekend. The 1976 European Cup runner-up is hoping that’s enough for Beric to help it overturn their deficit against United on Wednesday in the last-32 return leg.

Beric, a versatile center-forward capable of playing with his back to goal and creating, joined Saint-Etienne last season. He’d scored 27 goals in 34 matches in his final season with Rapid Vienna, but was unable to replicate the feat in the French league because his progression was abruptly stopped by a serious right knee injury.

He is expected to start at Geoffroy Guichard Stadium after his teammates managed to force United goalkeeper Sergio Romero into only a single save from 14 shots last week.

“Beric is so skillful and astute in front of goal that we all want to give him a starting nod,” former Saint-Etienne striker Herve Revelli, now a club ambassador, told L’Equipe.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

United was carved open at times, but the French club was made to pay for its blatant lack of efficiency. Revelli insisted Beric can make a difference.

“He is likely to put our chances into the back of the net,” Revelli said.

With an estimated budget of close to 70 million euros, Saint-Etienne simply can’t afford the services of a world-class striker. When he joined the 10-time French champion for a reported six million euros, Beric became the third most expensive player signed by the club.

A humble player and a man of few words, Beric is somewhat the opposite of the self-infatuated Ibrahimovic.

Unlike Ibrahimovic, who once said he will be “God of Manchester,” Beric rarely speaks about himself and his rare comments on social networks are limited to praise of his teammates and Saint-Etienne fans.

Beric, who scored the last of his three league goals this season back in September, is not yet fully fit and should not be able to last the whole match. But Revelli is counting on his instinct for goals.

[ MORE: Guardiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” ]

“With him in a finisher role, I firmly believe in our chances,” said Revelli, Saint-Etienne’s all-time best scorer.

Saint-Etienne needs to find a way to stop Ibrahimovic, but history does not favor the home side.

During his time in France with Paris Saint-Gernain, Ibrahimovic was the scourge of Saint-Etienne, scoring 14 goals in 13 games in all competitions. He now has 17, including three hat tricks.

“It’s difficult to neutralize him. There is a possibility that we will set up an anti-Ibra plan,” Saint-Etienne coach Chirstophe Galtier said. “I don’t know what’s inside Zlatan, but for sure he likes to play against us. It’s not easy to score a hat trick in a European Cup game.”

Champions League Wednesday: Leicester’s last stand; Porto-Juve

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 21:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City looks on during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Sevilla FC at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 21, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Previewing Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League round-of-16 action…

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Leicester City vs. Sevilla

There’s no two ways about it: Leicester’s season — and perhaps their status as a Premier League club — is quickly spiraling out of control. The Foxes, just nine months after winning the PL title, sit 17th in the league table, one point clear of relegation, with 13 games still to play. Chances are, they won’t be back in the Champions League anytime soon, making Wednesday’s round-of-16 first-leg clash away to Sevilla all the more a monumental moment in the club’s history.

Where has hasn’t it gone wrong for Claudio Ranieri‘s side this season? If you’re of the mind that one player — N'Golo Kante in Leicester’s case — doesn’t make a team himself, then we’ll have to go one step further in diagnosing the stunning regression seen at the King Power Stadium this season: Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who combined to score 41 goals in the PL last season, have managed all of eight together in 2016-17. It’s the loss of Kante, though, that has left the defense forever exposed (43 goals conceded in 25 PL games, after conceding 36 in 38 all of last season), and the goal-getters forever feeding on scraps (24 goals scored, compared to 68 last season).

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]


Porto vs. Juventusfrom the AP

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci will be left in the stands for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Porto as punishment for his outburst aimed at coach Massimiliano Allegri.

Allegri announced the move on Tuesday at the pre-match news conference, saying he had agreed it with club officials as “a fair decision, out of respect for the squad, the fans and the club.”

Bonucci became embroiled in a heated argument over substitutions with Allegri after a 4-1 win over Palermo on Friday.

Allegri also will punish himself for his angry reaction to Bonucci, announcing a donation to charity.

U.S. U-20s awaken in 2nd half vs. Haiti, keep WCQ hopes alive

USMNT U-20 team (Photo credit: U.S. Soccer)
Photo credit: U.S. Soccer
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With many thanks to the hat trick scored by Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake, on loan from Liverpool), the U.S. U-20 national team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2017 U-20 World Cup remain intact.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

After dropping all three points in their opening group-stage game against Panama on Saturday, Tab Ramos’ young Yanks faced elimination from CONCACAF’s U-20 Championship in Costa Rica with a defeat to Haiti on Tuesday. After 15 minutes, the Americans found themselves a goal down, the prospect of winning zero points from their first two games a terrifying possibility.

Then, Lennon struck from the penalty spot. A draw wouldn’t be enough, realistically, though, as they’d still trail Haiti by three points ahead of the final group game, against Saint Kitts and Nevis, with the top two sides from each team advancing to the classification stage.

The score remained 1-1 until halftime, after which point the Yanks roared to life with three goals in a seven-minute span. Luca de la Torre (Fulham) scored the first of the bunch, an empty-net finish after a failed punch by the goalkeeper. Lennon quickly followed suit with two more to make it 4-1.

With three points from two games and a goal differential that now sits at +2, the Yanks are second in Group B, just ahead of Haiti on goal differential (+1). Panama sit atop the group with six points and a +5 goal differential. A U.S. victory over Saint Kitts and Nevis, to go with a Haitian upset of Panama, would see the Americans finish top of the group go into Group E in the classification stage, which would see them accompanied by a pair of second-place sides. The first-place side in each classification group qualifies for May’s tournament in South Korea.

Guradiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” as a club

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City reacts as Leonardo Jardim head coach of AS Monaco looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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In the past, when faced with adversity in the UEFA Champions League, Manchester City could do little more than wilt and crumble as their European dreams when up in smoke year after year, typically in embarrassing and/or heartbreaking fashion.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

On Tuesday, when faced with 2-1 and 3-2 deficits late into the second half of their round-of-16 first leg against Monaco, deja vu was quickly setting in for anyone who’s followed Man City’s rise from middling afterthought to mega-rich conglomerate with aspirations of world domination. Then, something strange (based on years of recent history) happened: Sergio Aguero fired City back to level at 2-2 in the 58th minute. Sure, more shocking defending saw the deficit restored three minutes later, but again, Aguero dissented.

For this reason, and perhaps this reason alone considering the putrid defensively display over the course of 90 minutes, first-year City manager Pep Guardiola should be heartened by Tuesday’s events at the Etihad Stadium. In his mind, it was a massive step forward in the club’s psyche — quotes from the BBC:

“I am so happy for the result, we are still alive. These kind of things help this club to achieve another step. We attacked in small spaces. That’s why they wanted me to come here. Everybody has to be congratulated.

“We are going to fly to Monaco to score as many goals as possible. If we don’t score in Monaco we will be eliminated.”