Hiddink relying on old magic to conjure up Australia's first victory

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The Independent Football

Guus Hiddink did not exactly eulogise over his legacy when he assumed control of Australia last year. "A lot of defence-orientated players gathered together, forming a block around the box... and a couple of cowboys up front." That was his immediate impression after succeeding Frank Farina.

What has emerged under Hiddink's stewardship is not the most aesthetic squad, but one, combining British, other European and South American influences, that many believe is capable of chasing Brazil into the knock-out stages. For a first witness for the prosecution of that case, call the Premiership representatives: Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill, Brett Emerton and Mark Schwarzer. M'lord, are these Socceroos not capable of seeing off Croatia and Japan?

Much is dependent on the Dutch snake charmer securing the optimum from certain mercurial performers - particularly a pair who once shared a dressing room at Leeds - and up to yesterday, Hiddink, with a penchant for mind games, was content to continue playing the "humble and eternally thankful" card for his adopted country, rated 54th in the Fifa rankings.

He did not actually maintain that today's game against Japan in Kaiserslautern is Australia's World Cup final, but that was the inference. "We are on the edge of the beginning of an adventure with this team but I think the big win for Australian football is being here," Hiddink said. It will be Australia's first World Cup finals contest since 1974, also staged on German soil, when they failed to win a game.

The Australians will arrive at the Fritz-Walter Stadion in defiant form. Undefeated since their play-off penalty shoot-out triumph over Uruguay last year which brought them World Cup qualification, they recently drew 1-1 with the Netherlands.

Hiddink accepts that lack of experience at World Cups could conspire against them today. "Japan have much more experience on the world stage," he said. "Nevertheless this team of Aussies is very competitive."

Amongst Australia followers here, expectation is inevitably at fever-pitch. We are speaking of Oz, after all, where swagger comes with the passport. "There's a hype and a buzz, but I think we need to capitalise on it and drive as far as we can with it and break our duck in the best possible way," said Neill.

The Blackburn defender appreciated the progress made by Japan, the reigning Asian champions, who are coached by the former Brazil player Zico and include Bolton's Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura, currently at Celtic, in their squad. However, Neill insisted: "I think everyone feels Japan is a team that's there to be beaten."

Viduka will captain Australia after recovering from a calf strain, but Everton's Cahill and Liverpool's Harry Kewell, who have also been injured, are unlikely to play 90 minutes in a contest which will, no doubt, be watched with more than passing interest by the English Football Association.

The character who conjured Holland's passage to the semi-finals of France '98, and then, with a rather more surreal achievement, nurtured joint-hosts, South Korea, to a similar finish four years ago, was given no more than a perfunctory once-over by the FA's king-makers for the England job. Once, these finals are over, Hiddink will become Russia's national coach

Something says that the Australian nation will not be the only twitchy onlookers today.

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