Why it matters
- IF AUSTRALIA WINS, the Socceroos will need to beat Saudi Arabia on Wednesday morning (AEDT) to confirm direct qualification to the World Cup.
- IF AUSTRALIA LOSES OR DRAWS, the Socceroos will finish third in Group B, regardless of the result against Saudi Arabia, and will face a sudden death single-leg play-off against the third-placed team, currently the UAE, in Group A in June in Qatar. The winner of that will then face South America’s fifth-ranked team, likely to be Peru or Uruguay, for a spot at the World Cup.
You couldn’t make it up. The most important week for the Socceroos in this World Cup cycle has been, thus far, a disaster so unmitigated it actually beggars belief.
Eleven players, including Australia’s most recognisable names in Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic, have been ruled out of Thursday night’s must-win showdown with Japan through injury, COVID-19 infection or protocols (or in the case of Nikita Rukavytsya, because he is not double-vaccinated). A 12th player, Jamie Maclaren, is getting married this weekend and won’t make next week’s trip to face Saudi Arabia – and that’s not counting Mathew Leckie, who is in the squad despite being injured and is unlikely to play.
Australia’s hopes of direct qualification for the World Cup go on the line this week.Credit:Getty
This crisis, unfolding slowly over the fortnight leading to this international window, has completely decimated coach Graham Arnold’s options, and thus Australia’s prospects of qualifying for the World Cup in Qatar the easy way. It’s as if the football gods have been intent on torturing Socceroos fans, picking off each player one by one in almost comical fashion.
Arnold, of course, tested positive for COVID-19 last week, and hasn’t been able to attend training or conduct in-person meetings, but this week he came into direct conflict with his employers after being spotted walking his dog when he should have been self-isolating – prompting a $25,000 fine from Football Australia and some stern words from chief executive James Johnson.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold was fined $25,000 by his employers for breaking self-isolation rules.Credit:Getty
The icing on the cake was a classic club-versus-country wrangle over Melbourne City defender Curtis Good. City denied the Socceroos and Good probably wouldn’t have seen a minute of action anyway, but the tension speaks to a football industry in Australia that is fractured, frustrated and fearful of what lies ahead in a macro sense for the sport if the Socceroos don’t make it to Qatar, now it’s obvious the developmental well that produced the ‘golden generation’ has run completely dry.
Former Socceroo Mark Bosnich said on SEN Radio that, from the outside looking in, the team seems to be “unravelling”. Even assistant Rene Meulensteen, who fronted Wednesday’s virtual press conference on behalf of Arnold, had to admit he’d never seen a build-up like this in all his years in the game, including his years as Sir Alex Ferguson’s right-hand man at Manchester United.
“Well, I’ve been though many, many things, but not really, no,” said Meulensteen, who will hand back the reins to Arnold on game day if he returns a negative test.
Despite everything that has gone wrong and Australia’s largely unconvincing performances to date, all is not quite lost. That might be a flicker of backs-to-the-wall delusion – but it’s there, the team sees it, and they’re seizing it. They have no alternative. That’s what it’s come to.
The Socceroos may not have beaten Japan for over a decade and many supporters may have already accepted defeat and made peace with entering the daunting intercontinental play-off route. But Japan are beatable – especially at home, where Australia have not lost a live World Cup qualifying match in 40 years.
There is plenty of pressure on Arnold and increasing scrutiny over his ability to get the best out of this crop of players – but it’s the same for Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu, Arnold’s ex-teammate at Sanfrecce Hiroshima during the late ’90s, who is far from popular in his home country and has been similarly castigated for not widening his selection net beyond his usual favourites and relying on stodgy tactics.
The Samurai Blue are also dealing with availability issues, with usual strikers Yuya Osako (Vissel Kobe) and Daizen Maeda (Celtic) out injured, along with Arsenal stopper Takehiro Tomiyasu and first-choice right-back Hiroki Sakai of Urawa Reds. They can book their spot in Qatar with a win here, but their fans are nervous too.
Liverpool star Takumi Minamino looms as the danger man for Japan.Credit:Getty
For Australia, there is no Mooy, Rogic, Irvine, McGree or Taggart – but there is the vitality and unpredictability of youth, and the chance that wildcard players like Denis Genreau, Nick D’Agostino or even Urugayan-Aussie Bruno Fornaroli could produce something truly special in front of an expected crowd of around 40,000 at Stadium Australia, the site of so many of the Socceroos’ most famous moments. That is what it has come to.
And so that is where they are placing their mental focus: not on the chaos or criticism swirling around them, but on “courage”, a trait Meulensteen said could win them the game, along with the usual tropes about Australia’s supposedly superior fitness, physicality and fighting spirit.
“These are the games that players are going to be talking about in many years to come. Those are the games you want to be remembered by,” he said.
“The message for us is: play to be remembered.
“Yes, everybody knows what’s at stake, but it’s the excitement, what you can achieve – this will get the players to play at their very best, I have absolutely no doubt about it.”
Winger Awer Mabil, fit and firing after his transfer to loan move to Turkish club Kasımpaşa, provided the powerful perspective of the next generation of Socceroos as a fitting final word.
“Growing up, we’ve watched Tim Cahill do it, we’ve watched Mile [Jedinak] do it also for the last World Cup,” he said. “So this is our opportunity for us as a group. And I feel a magical night coming up.”
The lowdown: Australia vs Japan
Asian World Cup qualifiers
Thursday, March 24, Stadium Australia
Kick-off 8.10pm, TV live on Network 10 and 10Play
Australia (4-2-3-1, from right): Ryan; Atkinson, Sainsbury, Degenek, King; Stensness, Genreau; Boyle, Hrustic, Mabil; Fornaroli.
Japan (4-2-3-1): Gonda; Yamane, Yoshida, Ikatura, Nagamoto; Endo; Ito, Morita, Mitoma; Minamino.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ajdin Hrustic (Australia) – With no Aaron Mooy or Tom Rogic, the playmaking responsibilities will fall squarely on the shoulders of the Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder. The 25-year-old has shown glimpses of real quality at international level but this is the moment when he must bring out a consistent, compelling 90-minute performance for the sake of his country. If he does, the Socceroos of the future could well be built around him.
Takumi Minamino (Japan) – It’s not clear how Japan’s attack will look without their usual strikers but it will probably involve Minamino in a key role. Nominally a winger, the Liverpool star is a tricky customer who will punish any half-mistakes from the Australian rearguard. The Socceroos simply don’t have a player like him who features regularly for such a big club at the very top of the game.
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