The Socceroos will live to fight another day as Graham Arnold’s team beat the United Arab Emirates 2-1 in Doha.
Goals in the second half from Jackson Irvine and Ajdin Hrustic either side of Caio Canedo’s strike were enough to set up a final qualifier against Peru for a place at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Brilliant wing play from Martin Boyle to create space and slide the ball into Irvine’s feet gave the St Pauli midfielder an easy finish from close range.
Four minutes later, the Socceroos defence failed to deal with a cross into their penalty area, and Canedo was first to react and smash the ball past Mathew Ryan to restore parity.
However, the Green & Gold were not too disheartened, and after waves of pressure, eventually found a leveller as Hrustic’s thunderous strike cannoned into the net off a UAE defender, sparking jubilant scenes and raucous celebrations from those who had travelled from Down Under to support their country.
Risk-taking in final third pays off
In the first half, the Socceroos looked like they were once again consigned to be victims of their own lamentable, conservative play in possession. Sideways and backward passes throughout the first 45 minutes predictably resulted in zero shots on target.
However, this changed in the second half as the Australian forwards were given license to try and take on the UAE defenders with the ball at their feet. Boyle’s quick feet and pace played a huge role in creating the opening goal, and his work linking up with Hrustic created golden opportunities for both Craig Goodwin and Jamie Maclaren.
This change of heart turned the game on its head, with the UAE really struggling to hang on to the coattails of the Socceroos. It was the first time in a few matches where Graham Arnold’s team looked like they had the belief in their own ability to force the issue, and it’s something that simply must continue if they aspire to reach the World Cup Finals.
Atkinson struggles to contain Abdalla
Nathanial Atkinson is touted to be the future of the right-back slot in the Socceroos team, and he was given the backing of Arnold to impress in such a crucial match.
However, the Hearts defender was found lacking on too many occasions. The only real opportunity for either side in altogether drab first half fell the way of Harib Abdalla after Atkinson was caught upfield. After streaking down the left wing, the angle was against the 19-year-old forward as he tried to squeeze a shot through Mat Ryan’s near post, resulting in a relatively comfortable save.
Soon in the second half, Abdalla stood Atkinson up before he twisted him inside out, skipped past and tried to bend a shot past Ryan.
It was only a matter of time before some damage was done due to Atkinson’s inadequacies, and immediately after Australia took the lead, Atkinson was again caught out of position. Bailey Wright came across to try and cover the marauding Abdalla but was sold a dummy and suddenly the Socceroos were scrambling. Abdalla whipped the ball in and Canedo was able to pounce, all whilst Atkinson was only just arriving in the penalty area.
Fran Karacic looks to be the obvious replacement for the Peru game, but he’s another player short on regular minutes at club level and hasn’t looked too comfortable when defending one-on-one.
Room for improvement ahead of final Peru test
There are still plenty of question marks hanging over Graham Arnold and the Socceroos. Whilst the industrious second half display reaped rewards, an uninspiring first half cannot be repeated against Peru if qualification is to be achieved.
Gaping holes in midfield, a lack of movement from the forwards, and suspect defensive positioning are things that will be punished by the South Americans, who possess players of much greater pedigree than today’s opponents.
Injuries to key players like Adam Taggart and Trent Sainsbury will not help, but this is out of Graham Arnold’s control. A balance must be struck between structured and disciplined play, and adventurous, free-flowing football that plays to the strengths of the likes of Boyle, Hrustic and Goodwin.
What the performance did show however is that there is a resilience in the team. They didn’t throw in the towel following such a crushing blow so soon after taking the lead. They were persistent and aggressive to wrestle back ahead, and managed the game perfectly once they hit the front.
FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifying Play-Off
United Arab Emirates 1 (Canedo 57m)
Australia 2 (Irvine 53m, Hrustic 84m)