If “it’s in our hands” had indeed become the Socceroos’ unofficial apophthegm during their efforts to qualify for the 2022 World Cup then it is one they will just about be able to cling to at the end of a disappointing November international window. But with presages of ill-tidings beginning to come to the fore, automatic qualification for Qatar appears dangerously close to slipping through their fingers.
A week on from on a Saudi Arabia stalemate that dampened a homecoming more than two years in the making, Australia’s surprise 1-1 draw with China, combined with Japan’s subsequent 1-0 win over Oman in Muscat, saw Graham Arnold’s side drop outside their group’s two automatic qualification slots for the first time.
Memories of the record-setting 11-game winning streak is now naught but a distant memory, and the Australians inability to dispatch a side they comfortably dealt with 3-0 in September means they are now winless in their last three fixtures. They are also a point behind a Japanese team that, despite ongoing questions surrounding why they can’t turn their collection of fearsome individual talent into consistent team performances, are themselves on a three-game winning run.
Further, after missing a chance to overhaul them for top-spot at a sodden Parramatta Stadium, they are five adrift of group leaders Saudi Arabia, who dispatched Vietnam 1-0 in Hanoi in their overnight fixture. Coach Hervé Renard’s side would be doing Australia a favour with wins against Oman and Japan during the next international window in January but, in doing so, would all but take one of the two qualification spots in Group B off the table.
“Frustrating, always, when you go 1-0 up and then you concede and finish with a draw,” Mitch Duke, who headed home Australia’s goal in the 38th minute only to then watch on as Wu Lei dispatched a VAR-adjudicated penalty in the 70th minute, told Network Ten. “It was an important game that we needed three points [from] and very frustrating to go away with just the one.”
With a home fixture against the Blue Samurai still to come in March next year, kickstarting another winning streak that takes them through the end of this phase of qualification would ensure Arnold’s men progression to next year’s showcase regardless of what Japan do in their other games but, undoubtedly, the Socceroos’ quest for a fifth straight World Cup stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail.
More concerning than prognostications over scenarios, though, is that Wednesday morning’s exploration in bluntness came against one of the weakest sides remaining in Asian qualifying. Coach Li Tie’s side sat second bottom of Group B coming into the meeting – played at the neutral Sharjah Stadium due to China’s continued quarantine requirements for international arrivals – and had been thoroughly outplayed by the Socceroos in their previous meeting, also staged on neutral ground, in Doha.
Duke continued to do Mitch Duke things as he headed his side ahead in the 38th minute, but the Socceroos persistent inability to unlock an embedded defence came back to haunt them; ultimately descending into a layer of cross-spam that only deepened when desperation and urgency increased after China’s equaliser.
The signs of this bluntness and an over-reliance on crossing has been hinted at since the Socceroos returned to play in June after their long Covid-enforced absence but, given such omens came during a world record-setting run of wins, there was a certain level of angst in determining just how much of a problem they were and how much attention could be brought to them.
When a side is winning, World Cup qualification looks a sure thing and new stars are emerging amid an overall hopeful and aspirational spirit in the local football scene, it’s difficult to draw much attention to the intricacies of ratios of Xg per shot or successful dribbles in the opponents final third.
These issues may have been swept under the carpet but the stalemate in China should now force the Socceroos to confront them. If they do, it would not be unreasonable to envisage wins over Vietnam and Oman in the fixtures preceding Japan’s trip to Australia, combined with three points away to a Saudi side that, by the end of March might have put their cue in the rack. But they’ll need steady hands.