At least one Australian newspaper managed to make light, and a good deal of mischief, out of the Socceroos becoming the worst starters of the 2010 World Cup. "Australasia 1, Slovakia 1," boomed one Sydney headline after New Zealand had scored their late equaliser in Rustenburg in Group F. Cue much gnashing of teeth from the Australian side of the Tasman Sea. Usually, New Zealand are allowed to do better than their neighbours in only one major sport, and it is the one where the smaller of the two nations only ever wears black.
Jokes aside, there was little of value to be found in Australia's 4-0 defeat against Germany; the fact that New Zealand, holding Slovakia, did a good deal better against a European opponent is just one more embarrassing detail. The Socceroos' chances of recovering some balance against Ghana today, and enough points to sustain an ambition to reach the knockout phase, seem further diminished by the absence of Vince Grella (injured) and Tim Cahill (suspended).
What will Australia do without Cahill, their most likely scorer? Pim Verbeek, Australia's coach, seemed stuck for an answer to that question immediately after the rout perpetrated by the Germans, which included Cahill being sent off in the 56th minute. A likely and popular solution would be the return to the starting XI of Harry Kewell, who remains probably the highest-profile Australian footballer and, when fit, a capable scorer.
In his most recent season with Galatasaray, Kewell scored 14 goals, or about one for every two matches. The suspicion is that Kewell, whose career has taken him to Everton, Leeds United, Liverpool and now Istanbul, is again troubled by fitness issues. But the 31-year-old forward seems determined to take part at the Royal Bafokeng stadium today, and in the build-up was involved a fierce verbal attack on the Australian media. Not, it should be noted for their cheeky references to New Zealand but for their being too critical of the national XI.
Verbeek was critical, too, as he had to be after Germany pulled the Socceroos this way and that with the speed of their midfield, making the Australians look the slow, ageing side that in many areas they are. "We need to be more compact, which I think we managed for the first 20 minutes against Germany," said Verbeek, who will leave the job, however far Australia go in the tournament, next month. "But after that we lost control and I was not at all happy with the way we organised ourselves."
The way Verbeek set up his team against Germany was with fear: Cahill, who generally plays deeper than the front line for Everton, his club, had been placed as the most advanced attacker in front of a dense midfield. Verbeek, a Dutchman, concedes more enterprise is essential today. "A draw would not be enough," he said. "We have to win this one." Ghana, who have three points following their 1-0 victory over Serbia, have promised to test the Australians just where Germany inflicted wounds: with speed.
"We know they have some weaknesses and we will target those," Ibrahim Ayew, the Black Stars midfielder, told reporters. With Inter Milan's Sulley Muntari reporting his recovery from the thigh strain, Milovan Rajevac, the coach, has some selection dilemmas, notably over whether to pick the experienced Muntari and Stephen Appiah in midfield or to stick with the younger alternatives who did duty against the Serbs.
"It is important we keep our feet on the ground," Rajevac said. "We know we will face a determined Australia, and that they can do far better than they did, with only 10 men, against Germany. That gave them problems but we all know they are a competitive nation."
The match up
Key battles ? Asamoah Gyan v Craig Moore Gyan, once booed and criticised by Ghanaian crowds, is becoming a World Cup totem for his country, a striker whose efforts in 2006 helped them into the knockout phase and whose penalty gave them three points against Serbia in 2010. Tall, lithe, awkward and strong on the turn, he will be a challenge for Moore. ? Andre Ayew v Scott Chipperfield Youth against age here. Ayew has learned to live with the burden of having Abedi Pele, Ghana's greatest player, as a father. He has speed and a good right foot to test the worldly but slowing Chipperfield, who is 34.
Tactical analysis You hope Australia have refined their offside trap in training or even abandoned it all together after it was sprung time after time by a rampant Germany in the opening game. Ghana's speedy forwards, led by Ayan, could wreak havoc today if the Aussies persist with the ploy.
Player to watch Harry Kewell. Australia will at some stage look to his great talent in their search for goals. The 31-year-old forward needs to show he has got the competitive edge under pressure that his country needs.
Previous meetings Ghana and Australia have met six times so far, each time in friendlies: the Socceroos lead the head-to-head by four wins to one, and are unbeaten in the past three meetings, the last of which was a 1-0 triumph in Sydney in 2008.
Did you know? Australia conceded as many goals in their 4-0 defeat to Germany as they did in 14 games in the Asian World Cup qualifying zone.