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Shaky Socceroos take control of their World Cup destiny

Soccer

If the past week has taught Australia anything, it's that reaching the 2018 World Cup won't be easy.

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But the Socceroos do have control of their own destiny following last night’s crucial 2-0 win over the United Arab Emirates.

Jackson Irvine and Mathew Leckie headed home from corners to earn the three points at Sydney’s Allianz Stadium and end a run of four successive draws.

Irvine’s early strike opened the scoring, before Leckie broke the tension 12 minutes from time with his second goal in a week following his effort in the 1-1 draw with Iraq on Thursday.

Two headers from two corners brought two goals and three points.

And as defender Trent Sainsbury wrote on Twitter, “one point proven”.

Ange Postecoglou’s decision to introduce a radical new 3-2-4-1 formation for the two crunch qualifiers had been questioned, but four points from the two games keeps Australia on track to reach the Russian tournament.

If people want the perfect system it’s probably their hot water system at home

Postecoglou said he was proud of the way his players had embraced the new system, calling the performance “strong” and “bright”.

“We find when we challenge them they respond. They did again tonight,” he said.

There were moments against Iraq and UAE when the Socceroos appeared rattled by their lesser-ranked opponents.

Iraq were close to running over the top of Australia, while the silky skills of Omar Abdulrahman posed questions for the Socceroos’ back three.

However, Postecoglou played down any concerns about his defence.

“If someone has got a system out there that stops oppositions from doing anything, it’s 11 against nothing,” he said.

“It’s a game of football. We’ve got to try and score goals which we did (and) the opposition are going to create opportunities.

“If people want the perfect system it’s probably their hot water system at home but it ain’t a football system.”

Postecoglou said he was “just glad people are talking about systems, it’s great”.

“We don’t talk enough about football in this country so, if nothing else, I’ve initiated some debate,” he said.

However, further questions from media elicited a defensive response from the fired-up 51-year-old, who claimed a foreign coach wouldn’t be so heavily scrutinised.

“I’ve sat here for three-and-a-half years and I haven’t changed in anything I’ve said I was going to do,” Postecoglou said.

“I expect to be held accountable for what I say and the kind of football we want to play. But it seems I’ve been held accountable for doing what I said I’d do this week – that’s the bit I struggle with.

“Maybe if it was a foreign coach we’d all sit back and say, `what a genius he is, he’s coming up with new ways to challenge these guys’.

“But what I’ve found and what I said from day one is I will not talk down to our players.

“I will not speak to our players as if they’re not as good as somebody else just because they’re Australian and I certainly am not going to sell short our coaching staff and the way we work.”

Tuesday’s win was the Socceroos’ first qualifying win in five games and more than six months, and means they can still secure an automatic Russia 2018 spot as a top-two finisher in Group B.

While Australia are unbeaten in their group, the drawn results have shuffled them behind Japan and Saudi Arabia with just two automatic qualification places up for grabs.

Both Saudi Arabia and Japan were winners in their matches, with the Saudis claiming a tight 1-0 victory over Iraq and the Blue Samurai crushing Thailand 4-0.

It keeps the two pacesetters three points clear of the Socceroos but both sides have to face Australia next before meeting in their final group match.

That leaves the Socceroos, who close out qualifying at home to Thailand, in control of their own fate.

Last night’s win lifted Australia four points clear of UAE, meaning two wins will assure them of third place and a play-off position.

After the full-time whistle was blown, a disconsolate UAE assistant coach wept on the bench as he came to terms with the defeat that surely means the Emirati won’t be heading to Russia.

The result also cost senior coach Mahdi Ali his position, announcing his decision to step down from the role in the wake of the loss.

Postecoglou hailed Irvine following his goalscoring home debut.

“He’s always a threat. He’s had a really good start to his international career but there’s plenty more there and I was pleased he got a goal,” he said.

“I thought he and Jimmy Troisi defensively did a really good job for us.

“In the second half we totally overtook them and probably should have scored a couple more.”

Many have criticised the Socceroos for lacking attacking potency but skipper Mile Jedinak would rather call the predicament a set-piece revival.

It’s been five games since the Socceroos last scored in open play, when Tomi Juric found the net against Saudi Arabia in October.

That it took two corners to get the job done against UAE did little to quell doubts about the team’s creativity.

But Jedinak said it was proof the Socceroos’ dead-ball work is delivering.

“I’d be lying to say that we wouldn’t like a few more in open play,” Jedinak said.

“But we also know we can expose the teams in our group from set plays.

“It’s by design, it’s what we do. It really isn’t a coincidence.

“We put a lot of time and effort into it and they do a lot of research on corners and free-kicks against for the opposition.”

Despite external pressures, Jedinak never questioned a swift rebound from last week’s disappointing 1-1 draw against Iraq in Tehran.

After the shaky introduction of Ange Postecoglou’s new 3-2-4-1 formation, the squad and coaching staff pored over video analysis to right what had gone wrong.

The result was a more organised performance, although vulnerable gaps either side of the three-man defence remain.

Widemen Leckie and Brad Smith also appeared uncertain as to whether they were operating as wingbacks or wingers.

“There was a big difference from the game in Iran,” Aston Villa man Jedinak said.

“Everybody just felt a little bit more comfortable, and the understanding of what was asked of us was nailed down really well.

“You could just tell coming off the training pitch yesterday that everyone was a lot more comfortable and we would make it right.”

The focus now shifts to June, when the third-placed Socceroos play Saudi Arabia at Adelaide Oval in a game they must win to continue the push for an automatic qualification spot as one of Group B’s top two.

They then travel to Japan in August before finishing against Thailand back at home in September.

“We’ve still got to play those two teams (Saudi and Japan), obviously one being at home, one being away,” Jedinak said.

“But we control our own destiny and we’ll be thinking like that going forward.

“Saudi are in some form but we’ll back ourselves all the way until the end.”

-AAP

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