Into the Round of 16 for the just the second time, the Socceroos are heading into their biggest fixture in the nation’s World Cup history when they take on Argentina.
Having last made the Round of 16 in 2006 with the squad now revered as ‘The Golden Generation,’ Graham Arnold’s side have a great opportunity to go one better if they can knock of the Argentines.
Having gone out in 2006 having fallen short to Italy, that year’s eventual World Cup winners, Australia’s opponent is no lesser with Argentina coming into the tournament as one of the sides to beat, and though their loss to Saudi Arabia on the opening matchday looked ominous, they’ve proven to be one of the strongest sides at the tournament.
With the squad and coach Arnold not content just to make up the numbers and make a serious run in the tournament, they’ll be desperate to get the win and make a bit of history as no Australian squad has progressed to the quarter finals. Though footballing giants, Argentina who are without a World Cup win since 1986, they’ll be coming in desperate to add another trophy to the cabinet and end their 36 year drought.
While not a side blessed with natural talent, the camaraderie of the squad has certainly played a role in the Aussies getting as far as they have. Also having looked strong defensively led by Harry Souttar and Kye Rowles, the Aussies haven’t been flashy. Happy to play deeper and pounce on the counterattack, Mathew Leckie, Craig Goodwin and Aziz Behich have been played to their strengths with their blistering pace and great dribbling ability, the trio have caused headaches for oppositions.
Having structured his side in three different formations across the three groups game, using a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 4-4-1-1 with Arnold having varying success with all three you’d suggest he’ll likely be structuring his side in a similar fashion against Argentina.
Coming into the nation’s most important fixture to date, Arnold has some big decisions to make. With Keanu Baccus making an impact when he came on against Denmark, does he now start with calls from outside the camp believing he should Also tactics wise, does he opt to play a high line and expose Argentina similar to how Saudi Arabia did at risk of exposing defenders. Or does he continue to utilised what has got the squad to this point, play deeper at the risk of letting Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria and Julián Álvarez take over.
Argentina come into the fixture with all the pressure on them. The superior side talent-wise on paper and one of the favourites to go all the way, they’ll be weary of Australia given the amount of upsets nations from the AFC have caused.
Like Arnold, Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni has shuffled his side around, having lost to Saudi Arabia on the opening day, changes were made and the Argentines have quickly improved since then and proved why they’re one of the top sides at the tournament.
Having gotten wins over Mexico and Poland using a 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-2-1 formation, Scaloni will likely go back to the well and use what worked to get them out of the group.
Having a good balance of experienced and talent veterans and quality exciting youngsters, Argentina will be a tough opponent for the Aussies to overcome.
Players to watch
For Australia two key players to watch will be Souttar and Leckie with the duo having been the top players for the Aussies in the tournament.
Souttar has been immense at the back for the Socceroos, standing at 198cm tall he’s been an intimidating presence. In addition to his physicality having bullied opposition forwards with his strength and able to come across and clear the lines, his work rate for a player his size has been exceptional, covering the ground well and possessing a great ability to close in on defenders pushing towards goal. With an exceptional tournament thus far there’s reasons to suggest he may not be at Stoke for that much longer with EPL clubs circling for his signature.
Meanwhile Leckie on the opposite side of the pitch has been a tricky winger with his pace and dribbling ability he’s caused defences headaches while having proven to be clinical around goal with his strike against the Danes one of the best Australian sporting moments in recent memory.
For Argentina it’s hard to look past one of the greatest footballers to ever grace a pitch in Messi. Though heading into the backend of his career is still one of the world’s finest and one the Aussies will need to play close attention to. The nation’s golden child, Messi has been influential to the side’s success in the tournament thus far, scoring in two of the three group stage fixtures.
Enzo Fernández will be another the Aussies will want to shut out of the game, with the dynamic midfielder capable playing as defensive and attacking midfielder.
With the ability to push forward up the pitch and create chances while also being capable of playing deeper and utilised as the central defensive midfielder, he’ll be looking to work the Aussie midfield off their toes.