Stakes raised as Socceroos play Russian roulette

Australia have developed an appealing and competitive style of play that should give our game plenty more memorable moments but all the good work would come unstuck if the Socceroos failed to reach Russia 2018.


The Socceroos are seeking their fourth straight participation in the FIFA World Cup Source: Getty Images

Winning the 2015 AFC Asian Cup for the first major honour in their history was a tremendous achievement for the Socceroos and it gave the game Down Under a massive boost.

But the FIFA World Cup is bigger, more important and the truest gauge of one's strength and it is a sign of our progress as a football nation that whereas 20 years ago we used to dream of reaching the finals, now we expect it as a bare minimum.

I know, I know, we don't have to beat the South Americans anymore but Asia has its special challenges too.

The national team will kick off their final push to qualify for the World Cup on Thursday with the first of two tricky matches in five days that should give them a perfect tonic for blockbusters on match days three and four.

Australia are in six-team Asian Group B comprising Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Thailand.

The top two go through automatically to Russia while the third-placed team play off against their counterparts from Group A for the right to face a team from CONCACAF in a final play-off.

The Socceroos start their campaign with a home match against Iraq in Perth on Thursday before they travel to Abu Dhabi to take on the United Arab Emirates five days later.

Then come the two massive confrontations in the space of five days in October that could have a major bearing on the outcome of the group.

Australia face the Saudis in Jeddah before they take on the Samurai Blue in Melbourne.

Ange Postecoglou has selected a strong foreign-based squad - with the exception of Melbourne City's Tim Cahill - that would be expected to pick up six points from the games with Iraq and UAE.

The Socceroos are enjoying a healthy period after landing the Asian Cup on home soil and going through the first phase of qualifying rather comfortably.

The team has gelled into a competitive outfit that has its weaknesses but also far more strong points, among them a burning desire to win matches by playing the kind of attacking football that has been the mantra of Postecoglou since his appointment almost three years ago.

Postecoglou was telling me only recently how pleased he is with the regeneration of the national team that is "beginning to play with the desired identity" and that he thought the Socceroos "are in a good space" going into the final qualification stage.

This no doubt is a tough road full of booby traps especially in the away games.

However, the Australian team have built an exciting style centred on a strong and creative midfield in the last 12 months.

Postecoglou can count on a set of highly influential midfielders, such as Mile Jedinak and Mark Milligan on the defensive side and Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic and Massimo Luongo in an attacking sense, that gives him an embarrassment of riches, apart from a selection dilemma.
Only Japan appear to be on a par with the Socceroos in this vital area of the field.

Six points from the games in Perth and Abu Dhabi would set the Socceroos up for the more challenging confrontations with the Saudis and Japanese.

Saudi Arabia will see the match as an opportunity to exact revenge over Australian football after Al Hilal lost a spiteful AFC Champions League final to Western Sydney Wanderers 1-0 on aggregate in 2014.

At the end of a controversial second leg in Riyadh that finished goalless, Al Hilal striker Nasser Al Shamrani vented his frustration by spitting at and head-butting Matthew Spiranovic and he was later banned for six matches. Al Shamrani claimed Spiranovic had abused him.

Returning Spiranovic could well be starting for the Socceroos in Jeddah if he comes through the next two international games against Iraq and UAE but 'bad boy' Al Shamrani is unlikely to be selected.

Like Spiranovic, he has been hit by injuries in the last 12 months.

If there is any lingering animosity between the Saudis and Socceroos, there is nothing but mutual respect between Australia and Japan.

The two sides have provided some marvellous and close contests with honours just about even in the last decade and the forthcoming clash at Etihad Stadium should be no different, with no quarter asked or given.

Money-laden China may be making big waves on Asia's club front but the Socceroos and the Samurai Blue are the continent's most respected and feared teams at the moment, Iran and Korea Republic permitting.

It was a shame that Keisuke Honda and his samurai played poorly at the Asian Cup last year and were eliminated in the quarter-finals by the UAE, robbing fans from both countries of a glamorous semi-final in Newcastle that would have set the pulses racing once again.

They will get another chance when the two old rivals lock horns in front of an expected full house in Melbourne on October 11.

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5 min read
Published 29 August 2016 at 9:19am
By Philip Micallef
Source: SBS