The five days that could decide Australia’s World Cup dream

Beginning with Thursday's match against a very strong Iraqi side, Australia's road to Russia is a harder journey than many might realise.

Australia v Iraq - FIFA World Cup Asian Qualifier

Tom Rogic controls the ball during a World Cup qualifier Source: Getty Images AsiaPac

Australia begin their quest for a fourth straight World Cup qualification against Iraq in Perth on Thursday night. It’s a big deal - so why is everyone so comfortable about it?

Let’s nip that complacency in the bud. Right here, right now. Time to rewind the clock.

It’s October 16, 2012, we’re in Doha’s Grand Hamad Stadium and Alaa Abdul-Zahra has just put Iraq ahead of Australia in the 72nd minute.

Hit pause right there. It was the fourth game of the campaign and, going in, Australia boasted a measly two points to that juncture. Japan were already on 10 points.

But Australia, the group’s other “power” nation, were in huge strife. For eight minutes after Abdul-Zahra’s goal, dreams of going to Rio looked shot.

Of course, Tim Cahill then scored an equaliser and four minutes later, Archie Thompson would come on and grab the winner.

They managed to get out of jail again against Oman despite trailing 2-0 in their next game; a catastrophic home loss saved (again) by the invention of Cahill and Brett Holman.

Thankfully, Australia didn’t lose thereafter and the campaign is more remembered for the gutsy draw in Japan, the 4-0 romp over Jordan in Melbourne and Josh Kennedy’s progression-sealing header against Iraq in front of 80,523 in Sydney.

All's well that ends well, right? Not exactly.

Reality check time: this group is even tougher than the one the Socceroos faced four years ago. In fact, it’s the toughest group an Australian team has ever faced in Asia, at any age level.

It’s marvellous that Australia can now radiate such confidence when they go into battle - nobody doubts that the Socceroos will progress to Russia - but the warning signs were all there in the last campaign.

Pleasingly, Australia have a hungrier team and a coach who won’t tolerate complacency.

But this isn’t a group where things can allowed to be awry. Australia were saved by the weakness of their opposition four years back. Not this time.

Japan are obviously the toughest opposition but Saudi Arabia need no introduction as a regional power. The United Arab Emirates aspire to be, and are well on the way to being, exactly that. Iraq have been moulding this excellent squad for several years. And Thailand, fuelled by a spending boom, are probably the most rapidly-improving nation in Asian football.

The group has three of the four semi-finalists from the last Asian Cup, plus (arguably) the best team in Asia, and two others of enormous ambition.

Ange Postecoglou gets prickly when the nation underestimates the strength of the Socceroos, but this isn’t about that. This is about being aware of the situation before us.

Yes, the Socceroos should progress. Yes, they may well be the equal of Japan. But the message to the players ought to be this: don’t say we didn’t warn you.

To avoid the nervousness of that night in Doha - when I honestly felt the campaign was unlikely to be recovered - Australia can’t afford anything less than a flying start over the next week.

The rule of thumb to qualify for a major tournament again holds up here: win your home matches and draw your away ones. That means three points against Iraq and at least one against the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.

Notably, Iraq have been settled in Perth for over a week already, getting acclimatised and ready for the game - even squeezing a friendly against Perth Glory.

By contrast, the Socceroos have been arriving in dribs and drabs in over that same week, some only arriving a few days before the game.

The Emirates won plenty of hearts during the Asian Cup - mostly due to Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil - but then flopped at the semi-final stage. At home, and with something to prove, that surely won’t happen again.

Indeed, if the Socceroos want to be there in Moscow, the lessons of the past are worth heeding. Nothing should be taken for granted.

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4 min read
Published 31 August 2016 at 4:16pm
By Sebastian Hassett