Socceroos’ World Cup dreams still alive

A left-footed thunderbolt from Socceroo midfielder Ajdin Hrustic in the dying minutes of the game gave Australia a 2-1 win over the UAE to propel Graham Arnold’s team to within 90 minutes of the World Cup.

Midfielder Jackson Irvine had given Australia the lead seven minutes into the second half of the Asian Football Confederation play-off only for the goal to be cancelled out by an equaliser from Caio Canedo Correa just three minutes later.

Winning goal scorer Ajdin Hrustic is challenged by Abdullah Ramadan of United Arab Emirates. Credit:Mohamed Farag/Getty Images

The match looked as though it would head to extra time and perhaps penalties before Hrustic unleashed his fearsome strike in the 84th minute.

The shot took a deflection on the way in but no one in a yellow shirt on the pitch, in the stands or in lounge rooms around Australia cared a whit.

The Socceroos now progress to the final eliminator against Peru early next week, with a place at the World Cup finals in Qatar in November the prize.

Selection surprises

Graham Arnold was dealt a blow by injuries to veteran defender Trent Sainsbury, a defensive linchpin for this team, and striker Adam Taggart, both of whom were expected to start.

He rolled the dice, playing Mat Leckie in the middle of the attack and bringing in inexperienced right back Nathaniel Atkinson for just his second cap and centre half Kye Rowles, who only made his debut in the win over Jordan in last week’s warm-up friendly.

Jackson Irvine came in as an attacking midfielder with Riley McGree on the bench. Martin Boyle was selected on the right flank while Craig Goodwin kept his spot on the left wing.

Tense, tight and tentative
With the stakes so high it is perhaps understandable that both teams went into this game focused more on avoiding defeat than winning, at least early on.

Tense, tight, timid and tentative were the watchwords for both sides, a sterile and tepid encounter enlivened occasionally by some long balls and quick breaks.

The former came mainly from Australia, who tried to get Craig Goodwin and Martin Boyle on the flanks into the game, the latter from the UAE, whose left-sided frontman Harib Abdulla Al-Maazmi got in behind Nathaniel Atkinson on a couple of occasions. Twice he managed to produce shots from tight angles, but Mat Ryan stood tall to block.

Australia’s Martin Boyle celebrates after a goal.Credit:AP

At the other end, Australia struggled to create any clear-cut openings. Martin Boyle showed he could cause problems with an early dribble but failed to get a shot off. Aaron Mooy looked comfortable on the ball despite his lack of game time this year, as did Ajdin Hrustic, but neither man was able to get his foot on the ball and take command of a game crying out for someone to stamp his authority on proceedings in a first half that produced only four shots on goal.

Set pieces still key
While the UAE looked to spring on the break and use their pace to get in behind the Socceroos rearguard, Australia, as in their win over Jordan, were reliant on set pieces and crosses from wide areas.

Abdullah Ramadan of United Arab Emirates and Australia’s Aaron Mooy fight for the ball.Credit:AP

It was from a Goodwin free kick after he had been fouled that Kye Rowles did get Australia’s best opportunity, but the ball flicked off the top of his head and skimmed wide. Had the delivery on an earlier attack been better things might have looked brighter. After a decent move Goodwin found himself in space on the left, but his cross was wild and flew out of play. In a game where chances were at a premium, this was profligate.

Advantage Australia, but not for long

There is nothing harder for defenders to handle than astute midfielders arriving late in the penalty area having shaken off their markers to find space close to goal, and that is exactly how Australia took the lead in the 53rd minute.

Atkinson pushed forward into a dangerous area and when the ball fell to Boyle he pivoted and spun past his opponents, drove to the byline and slotted a low cross to the near post. Jackson Irvine timed his run to perfection, stole in and was able to slot home from close range to put the Socceroos in front.

Bailey Wright challenges UAE winger Harib Suhail Al Maazmi.Credit:AP

But the joy was short-lived, three or so minutes in fact, as the UAE hit back strongly. It was danger man Harib Abdulla Almaazmi who caused problems once more. He got clear on the left, beat Bailey Wright’s challenge and drove over a cross which fell to the UAE’s naturalised Brazilian Caio Canedo Correa, who lashed home from inside the penalty area.

Close but no cigar
Neither side would have wanted the drama of extra time or penalties, so the onus was on one to produce a winner. Australia shrugged off its disappointment to fashion some chances and Goodwin had a gilt-edged opportunity to put his team in front just after the hour when he got clear, only to volley a close-range chance over the bar.

Hrustic then tried his luck with a good curling shot from the right. Arnold rolled the dice and took off Goodwin, replacing him with A League Golden Boot winner Jamie Maclaren, moving Leckie to a wide position.

The Socceroos celebrate Irvine’s opener.Credit:AP

Hrustic howitzer

The Socceroos had stepped up a gear in the final 20 minutes and got their reward five minutes from time when Adjin Hrustic delivered a howitzer of a drive from the edge of the penalty area to rocket Graham Arnold’s team into the final decider.

Set pieces have been critical for Australia, and it was from a corner on the left that the ball fell to Hrustic, loitering on the edge of the penalty area, to slam home a fierce volley which took a deflection off Ali Hassan Alblooshi to spin into the net. Job done, but there is still much to be achieved.

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