Despite a shaky start, the Socceroos’ Asian Cup campaign hasn’t exactly been front-page news so far. But that should change at 12.30am when they face Uzbekistan in the Round of 16.
It’s easy to disrespect the matches that have preceded the tournament’s knockout phase. This is because of its horrible format which eliminates only eight of the group stage’s 24 teams. Three countries reached the last 16 with a record of one win and two losses, so the Socceroos probably wouldn’t have been on the first plane home even if they’d been defeated in their most recent match against Syria.
Nevertheless, something remarkable has happened in the matches Australia has played so far. And while it’s been seen, I’m not sure it’s been fully registered.
The Socceroos attack has been completely reshaped – and that’s happened without the players that coach Graham Arnold had banked on using in it.
It’s surprising enough that Australia would have fielded a front three of Chris Ikonomidis, Jamie Maclaren and Awer Mabil but even more noteworthy is that the team has scored six times in two matches that began with those players up forward.
Sure, some may see doing that against Palestine and Syria as not being particularly impressive but if we compare those numbers to the same tournament four years ago, they stand up quite well.
In the Asian Cup’s group stage in 2015, Australia scored eight in two matches (against Kuwait and Oman). And that was with home ground advantage, Tim Cahill not being too far past the height of his powers and a more in-form Tomi Juric.
Not only are the Socceroos currently playing in United Arab Emirates – which is in a part of the world where they have struggled for nearly a decade – they are carrying on without the players that Arnold wanted to use as his main goal threats: Mat Leckie, Martin Boyle and Andrew Nabbout. Injury also claimed star midfielder Aaron Mooy who was ruled out just before the tournament began.
How difficult has playing in west Asia been for Australia in recent times? In four competitive matches in the region under Ange Postecoglou, the team managed just one win. And that was thanks to a late Tim Cahill goal.
But barring a horrible first half in the opening match against Jordan (which resulted in a 1-0 loss), the makeshift Socceroos line up has offered a genuine attacking threat in this tournament.
Indeed, in the seven matches played under Arnold since he took the reins after last year’s World Cup, the team has scored 19 times. While there have been some underwhelming opponents in that run, it’s worth noting that in 2017, the Aussies were struggling to find the net against Syria, Thailand and an Iraq side that had been in poor form. Even the abysmal Honduras team that somehow made it to a final playoff for qualification for Russia 2018 kept Australia scoreless for one and a half matches; it took a deflected free kick to break the drought for the Socceroos.
A huge role in the current goal-scoring spree has been played by chaps that have either debuted in the last four months or have returned to the team after a long spell out of it: Mabil, Boyle, Ikonomidis and Apostolos Giannou.
There are a lot of fans who would sooner chew on a razor blade than praise Graham Arnold.
But how could he not be given any credit, in particular, for the national team emergence of Mabil and re-emergence of Ikonomidis?
And how can he not be given credit for the functionality of what may well have been his second-choice forward line?
Even more importantly, apart from Alex Gersbach, those two players are the youngest in the Socceroos’ Asian Cup squad. And as there are only two outfield players on the 23-man roster who have had their 30th birthdays – Mark Milligan and Robbie Kruse – there’s a segue into Australia’s next international assignment: qualification for the 2022 World Cup finals.
Which is more important. I love the Asian Cup and it is winnable for our national team but the World Cup is the best measure of performance both in our region and, if the Socceroos qualify for the finals, against all other countries.
Most observers doubt that the current Australian side can win this tournament on foreign soil. Several markets have the team at double digit odds, with South Korea the team favoured to emerge from the Socceroos’ half of the draw.
But even if Arnie’s Asian Cup adventure ends against Uzbekistan and a flood of criticism follows, he’s already fulfilled an important part of his role – preparing a new generation of Socceroos for the road to an even bigger event in the region: Qatar 2022.
Paul Marcuccitti is an employee of Football Federation South Australia. The views expressed in this column are his own.
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