• Aziz Behich of the Socceroos looks on against Japan (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
After amassing 11 straight victories to start their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, the Socceroos were dealt a harsh reality check on Tuesday night.
Jonathan Bernard

SBS The World Game
13 Oct 2021 - 11:00 AM  UPDATED 13 Oct 2021 - 11:00 AM

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Qatar hopes hit first hurdle

We all knew Australia’s 11-game unbeaten run would come to an end at some point and it’s perhaps no surprise old rivals Japan were the culprits once again.

The Samurai Blue were a wounded bunch heading into Saitama, but it only took eight minutes for Ao Tanaka to restore their belief, albeit in fortuitous circumstances.

While a second-half resurgence, buoyed by an emphatic Ajdin Hrustic free-kick, did well to wrestle control back in the Socceroos’ favour, it proved only for a moment, as a late own goal sealed the 2-1 defeat.

Tuesday night’s result, coupled with Saudi Arabia’s 3-2 win over China, leaves Group B far from a procession now for Graham Arnold’s men, who will next face the undefeated Green Falcons in November.

That fixture marks the halfway point of this third phase, and you feel anything less than three points will only encourage Japan’s resolve to snatch back one of the two automatic qualifying spots.

The streak goes on

For all the talk surrounding Australia’s record run of 11 straight victories, their 2-1 defeat to Japan extended a much less glamorous streak on Tuesday night.

It’s now been 12 years since the Socceroos last beat their old rivals, with Saitama’s result representing their eighth failed attempt since 2009.

Han Berger, Holger Osieck, Aurelio Vidmar, Ange Postecoglou, Bert van Marwijk and Graham Arnold have all led the Socceroos in some capacity since Pim Verbeek last bested the Samurai Blue, and Arnold won’t get another chance until March next year.

By that time, with two games left to secure qualification, the Socceroos’ place in Group B will look a little clearer. The only problem, however, is that current leaders Saudi Arabia will then follow – just as they do now.

Slow and steady doesn’t win the race

Sitting back to get a feel for a game on foreign soil is not unusual in world football, but it doesn’t mean urgency should be forgotten altogether.

That’s exactly how the Socceroos approached their crunch clash against Japan, and the visitors duly made them pay for it during a first half to forget.

Ao Tanaka’s eighth-minute strike may have been the only goal, but it was one of countless opportunities borne from poor, predictable play from an Australian midfield well off the pace.

Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic, Jackson Irvine and Ajdin Hrustic – all ball-playing midfielders – looked far too tight together in a part of the pitch consistently pressed upon by their Japanese counterparts.

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The narrow shape left the likes of Martin Boyle and Adam Taggart largely forgotten, and played right into the hands of Tanaka, Wataru Endo and Yuya Osako, who would often drop deep to collect the ball and find Junya Ito or Takumi Minamino in acres of space out wide.

To Graham Arnold’s credit, the second-half introduction of Mitch Duke and Awer Mabil did well to increase the tempo, but you can’t help but wonder how the first half would have fared had the latter started.

Tough day at the office

It was a game to forget for Aziz Behich, the Socceroos left-back who produced a nightmare performance at Saitama Stadium.

The 30-year-old was routinely targeted by Junya Ito and was given a torrid time both before and after he failed to clear a routine ball into the box for Japan’s opener.

Tanaka’s goal – rather, the nature of it – had visibly affected Behich from then on and Ito only made things worse after the restart; twisting and turning to leave the defender with a booking for his blushes.

And if things couldn’t get any worse, they definitely did, compounded by a late own goal to give the Samurai Blue all three points with a morale-boosting 2-1 victory.

It’s a performance that will now raise serious question marks at the position ahead of next month’s meeting with Saudi Arabia, and one Graham Arnold will hopefully have the answers to.

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‘We need our crowd back’

A crowd of close to 15,000 fans witnessed Japan put an end to Australia’s 11-game winning streak at Saitama Stadium and Graham Arnold believes it’s exactly what the Socceroos have been missing.

The 2-1 victory signalled a return to form for the Samurai Blue, who approached the fixture fresh off two defeats from their first three World Cup qualifiers.

As it stands, Australia can still qualify for Qatar, however Arnold hopes having fans back on home soil for the first time will make all the difference in the tight games to come.

“I have watched Japan play the last three games without a crowd and their energy was nowhere near where it was tonight,” coach Arnold said.

“I am reaching out to the NSW government and really appealing to them to help us on our journey.

“The energy the crowd gave the (Japan) players in the last 15 minutes helped them get home.

“So again, I just really appeal to the government to help us on this journey to qualify for a World Cup.

“NSW is open now, please help us – we need our crowd back.”