Babalj Helps Young Socceroos Clinch AFF U-19 Championship

Melbourne Heart FC’s Eli Babalj scored the winning goal as the Qantas Young Socceroos were last night crowned Asean Football Federation (AFF) U-19 Champions after an enthralling 1 – 0 victory over Thailand making it Australia’s second AFF U-19 Championship success in three years.

Melbourne Heart FC’s Eli Babalj scored the winning goal as the Qantas Young Socceroos were last night crowned Asean Football Federation (AFF) U-19 Champions after an enthralling 1 – 0 victory over Thailand making it Australia’s second AFF U-19 Championship success in three years.

The huge investment in Thailand football development in recent years was clearly starting to pay dividends as the highly organised and skilled Thailand team were more than a match for the more traditional powerhouses in Asia, South Korea and Australia throughout the tournament.

Thailand started the game in a confident manner knowing that the Australians had not managed to beat them on three separate encounters over the past two years with each of their previous games finishing in a draw.

But a late goal by Babalj was enough to overcome a very tactically disciplined team and make amends for their heartbreaking 2009 loss to Thailand on penalties.

In what was an intriguing battle it was Thailand who set out to frustrate Australia-s ability to control the game by setting up a 4-5-1 formation to try and counteract the dominant Australian midfield.

While Australia took time to adapt to the crowded midfield, Thailand continued to sit back, waiting to pounce on any mistakes which, with the likes of Dylan McGowan and Ben Kantarovski in great form, were few and far between.

The suspension of Sam Gallagher meant a reshuffling of the defence for the young Australians with Daniel Bowles, Brendan Hamill, McGowan and Nikola Stanojevic managing to keep the Thailand team at bay in the opening minutes, limiting their efforts to long range shots.

Matthew Fletcher, continuing his good form in this tournament was Australia-s main attacking threat early on linking up well Mustafa Amini, Mathew Leckie and Ben Hollaran in attack.

Fletcher was bringing players into the game with his deft touches and in the 16th minute laid off a pin point ground hugging 30 metre pass from defence by Brendan Hamill to Amini who charged at the Thai defence before playing in Leckie on the right. Leckie rounded his defender Piyarat Lajungreed and just as he was about to fire was brought down from behind.

From the resulting free-kick, Leckie rose above the pack at the back post to meet a Steven Lustica cross only to see it crash into the crossbar with Wasan Narsuan in the Thailand goal well beaten.

Leckie was again in the thick of the action when in the 22nd minute he cut inside his defender, only to be closed down by three Thailand players. Even under this pressure Leckie managed to play Amini in behind the defence. Amini was left with a one-on-one situation with Narsuan, who stood tall and managed to parry the shot wide for a corner.

Thailand tried in vain to push forward through good work by Ponlachai Honthong and Visarut Naingan but Australia stood firm at the back as the game stood scoreless at the break.

Thailand-s best chance in the game came in the 63rd minute of play when Pattana Sokjoho burst through the Australian defensive line only to see his shot narrowly miss the target.

With an hour gone in the game and the Australian-s unable to break down the resolute Thailand defence, Qantas Young Socceroos Head Coach Jan Versleijen made a tactical change bringing on the attack minded Eli Babalj for defensive midfielder Steven Lustica and changing the midfield shape.

This attacking change paid dividends with Babalj being called into the action almost immediately when he found himself unmarked in the six-yard-box after good lead up play from Leckie on the right, again leaving his defender in his wake but Babalj was unable to capitalise on the opportunity.

The Qantas Young Socceroos started to gain more momentum with Benjamin Halloran finding more space down the left hand side of the pitch.

On one of his dynamic forays on the right Halloran turned provider in the 81st minute when he whipped in a cross that proved to hard for Narsuan to handle, the ball slipping out of his grasp where Babalj was there to pounce, poking the ball into the Thailand goal.

This sparked a ferocious response from the previously defence minded Thailand team as they looked to get forward at every opportunity resulting in some anxious moments for the Aussie defence.

Australia-s goal was bombarded with shots and crosses, however none to really test the safe hands of Adelaide United keeper Mark Birighitti.

The Qantas Young Socceroos then made some late changes, bringing on Kliment Taseski and Ryan Edwards for Amini and Halloran respectively. The fresh legs of both Taseski and Edwards was enough to take the final sting out of the Thailand team as they forced the Thai defence into action once again with some great pressure relieving runs forward.

The last few minutes was played in Thailand-s half as Australia managed to effectively close out the game.

“Thailand made things difficult for us once again, they are a very disciplined side and have a few excellent technical players,” Qantas Young Socceroos Head Coach Jan Versleijen.

“Credit must go to not only the players but to the whole staff as to win this Championship we had to play 4 tough games in 7 days in hot and humid conditions.

“The physical monitoring, recovery sessions, massage, appropriate nutrition and hydration were equally important as the technical and tactical input from Alistair and I.

“I must thank the AFF, the VFF and also the sponsors for making this tournament possible. It is an important tournament for youth development, it has served a great purpose in our preparation for the AFC Championship in China in October.”

Australia 1 (Eli Babalj 81-)

Thailand 0

AFF U-19 Youth Championships 2010

Thong Nat Stadium, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Qantas Young Socceroos starting line-up: 1. Mark Birighitti (GK), 2. Nikola Stanojevic, 3. Brendan Hamill, 6. Benjamin Kantarovsk (c), 7. Mathew Leckie, 8. Steven Lustica (9. Eli Babalj 60th), 11. Benjamin Halloran (20. Ryan Edwards 85th), 13. Mustafa Amini (5. Kliment Taseski 82nd), 14. Matthew Fletcher, 16. Daniel Bowles, 19. Dylan McGowan

Substitutes not used: 10. Christopher Bush, 12. Dimitrios Petratos, 15. Kamal Ibrahim, 17. Theodore Markelis, 18. Matthew Acton (GK).

Unavailable: Sam Gallagher (Suspended)