Graham Arnold’s men have made the most out of what has been quite the challenging schedule that has seen them play all bar one of their home matches in Australia.
The Socceroos’ 567 day wait for an international fixture began in the best possible manner with a Mathew Leckie goal in the opening minute, breaking the deadlock against Kuwait.
It was then left for Jackson Irvine and Ajdin Hrustic to wrap up a comprehensive victory for the green and gold.
Our first glimpse of the Socceroos in over a year also saw a raft of fresh new faces with Arnold handing debuts to Riley McGree, Kenny Dougall and Croatian born defender Fran Karacic.
The remaining three matches in the Socceroos’ Middle East camp saw them take the maximum nine points on offer. They saw off Chinese Taipei 5-1, Nepal by three goals to nil which saw the aforementioned Karacic grab his first goal before it was left to the towering Harry Souttar to head home the only goal in their win over Jordan.
The tight victory against Jordan completed the second stage of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers with the green and gold finishing top of their group with 24 points accrued from their eight encounters.
The heavyweights await
Round 3 of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers saw the green and gold placed in group B alongside some of their old foes in Japan and Saudi Arabia.
However, it was all smooth sailing to begin with as they made light work of China coming out on top 3-0 in Qatar.
Next up was a trip to Hanoi to face off against a Vietnamese side who boasted quite the impressive home record. The conditions were not favourable for the Socceroos as they combatted 29 degree heat and intense humidity to sneak a 1-0 win thanks to Rhyan Grant’s first for his country just before the break.
Their record breaking 11th straight win arrived in the following set of international fixtures in October. Awer Mabil and Martin Boyle gave Arnold’s side a 2-1 lead over Oman as they headed into halftime before Mitch Duke’s added the icing to the cake with a third in the 89th minute to place the Socceroos into the history books.
Arguably their toughest test yet awaited them in Saitama as they faced off against the Samurai Blue. Australia were sitting pretty at the top of the group while Japan were in desperate need for a result after a poor run of form.
Australia were slow coming out of the blocks and were punished on eight minutes when Japan took the lead but a rocket of a free kick from Hrustic gave the green and gold some hope.
The Socceroos now seemed all but destined to at least hold onto their unbeaten record until an unkind bounce saw Aziz Behich bundle the ball into his own net with five minutes remaining.
That brought an end to the Socceroos’ winning streak but still left them in one of the automatic FIFA World Cup qualification spots… for now.
The following international break marked a long-awaited homecoming for Arnold’s men as they faced off against leaders Saudi Arabia in Australia for the first time since November 2019.
The Australian footballing public had been biding their time and they came out in numbers to Western Sydney Stadium to watch their side against come up against a well-organised Saudi outfit.
The highly anticipated fixture ended in a goalless stalemate but that is not to say that it was not without plenty of guilt-edged chances. Mathew Leckie was the shining light as he asked plenty of questions of the opposition’s defence while Hrustic was proving as potent as always alongside Melbourne City’s new boy.
The Socceroos’ hopes of automatic qualification were now seriously being brought into question as they headed to the United Arab Emirates for their final match of the year against China.
The two sides had already gone head to head in the first Group B matchday with Australia coming out on top 3-0. However the circumstances had now changed – there was a lot more pressure on the Socceroos to repeat that scoreline as they looked to ward off Japan’s advances.
A Duke header around the 40th minute mark helped the nerves but as the match wore on, the pressure mounted with China only needing one stroke of luck to peg back the scoring.
That moment did eventually arrive – much to the dismay of Arnold’s men as Wei Lu dispatched his penalty after James Jeggo was deemed to have handled the ball in the box.
And so it ended, Australia once again denied maximum points for the third game running. They now sit outside the automatic qualification position in third with 11 points.
A crucial 2022 awaits the green and gold with a home tie against Vietnam on the horizon before a visit to Oman in the next international window at the end of January.
Samuel Greco Schwartz