Australia Under-20 coach Jan Versleijen has targeted nothing short of qualification to the second phase of FIFA World Cup in Colombia as he prepares a squad packed with attacking intent for the tournament, which begins with Australia’s opener against Ecuador on July 31.
Still stinging from the Joeys’ 4-0 second-round exit from the under-17 World Cup in Mexico at the hands of Uzbekistan last month, the Dutch mentor is determined to silence those who have questioned his suitability for the role as Australia’s youth teams chief.
“We are looking at having a good goal difference, making a good start and picking up at least three to four points in the group,” he told The World Game.
“Three points might be good enough if we don’t concede too many. But four points is of course preferable.
"I have set a target to reach the knockout stages (as the Joeys did in Mexico) and I think that is certainly realistic.
"It’s vital we win our first game, as the Joeys did, so we need to pick up something against Ecuador. I have a good feeling about my team and I’m really looking forward to see what these boys do at this level.”
After Ecuador, the Young Socceroos face Costa Rica on Wednesday, August 3, before their final group match against defending European champion Spain on Saturday, August 6.
Three of Versleijen’s chief attacking weapons – Tommy Oar, Matthew Leckie and Kerem Bulut – have not yet joined the team ahead of warm-ups against fellow World Cup hopefuls Korea Republic (July 22) and England (July 24).
"We have a promising squad with a lot of players who can score goals and create them. I know what my starting line will be against Ecuador. We are more technically adept and individually strong than in 2009 in Egypt,” Versleijen said.
“Back then we had more leaders and that’s something we need to work on. We had the likes of Luke DeVere and James Holland and that team had a bit more personality.
“I’ve told this group that they have to help each other build that group mentality and togetherness. We need that to be really competitive at this level.”
Versleijen knows he has attacking potency aplenty, adding: “Tommy Oar was there in Egypt and has since then played for the senior team, Matthew Leckie has made a very good career move to Germany and Kerem Bulut was top scorer last tear in China at the AFC under-19 championships, so these are players who can all hurt teams.
“We need to be good with the ball and we have to hold onto it. It’s not an easy draw. Ecuador only conceded four goals in their entire qualifying campaign and is an excellent counter-attacking team.
“They rely on their defence and speed up front. Costa Rica are fast and technical and play really nice football, whereas Spain are a copy of the team that is the European champions and world champions at senior level, so we know they will be extremely hard to contain.”
FC Utrecht flier Oar is due to arrive from the Netherlands on Wednesday, while Czech Republic-based Bulut and Leckie won’t arrive in Colombia until July 25, six days before Australia’s tournament opener at altitude against Ecuador.
The squad will be based at Manizales, situated 2,180m above sea level, for the first part of the tournament, with attitude acclimatisation a priority for the coach.
Versleijen also has Sydney FC’s Terry Antonis and new Borussia Dortmund capture Mustafa Amini providing further options in the final third, along with Brisbane Roar’s Kofi Danning and Central Coast Mariners rookie Bernie Ibini-Isei.
He is also giving his captain Ben Kantarovski, part of the Australian team bounced out at the group stage in Egypt, every chance to prove his fitness after his knee reconstruction.
“It’s a day by day thing for him and we can’t push it. Hopefully he will be ready for Ecuador,” he said.
Versleijen refused to take a heavy stick to notable absentees, Brondby’s Brent McGrath and Hajduk Split’s Steve Lustica, who both made themselves unavailable.
“It’s a big pity for them not to be involved. They have the quality to play for us but they must have faced a lot of pressure from their clubs and when you are young it can be hard to stand up to that.
“It’s sad because anybody who has a chance to play for their national team should.”
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