Simon Hill Preview: Socceroos vs Ecuador

10 Football's Simon Hill previews the Subway Socceroos' upcoming encounters against Ecuador. Watch both matches live and free on 10 Play

The last time Graham Arnold selected a team for an international in Sydney, almost exactly a year ago, storm clouds were brewing.  Three draws in four matches had left the Socceroos chances of automatic World Cup qualification in the balance, and a succession of withdrawals left the team exposed against a ruthless Japan.

Kaoru Mitoma pounced twice in the final few minutes, and Australia was sunk in the rain that poured down at Stadium Australia.  A further defeat followed against Saudi Arabia – and the knives were well and truly out.  Arnold it seemed, was a dead man walking.

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That it took nearly a week for Football Australia to confirm he would remain in charge for the Intercontinental Play-Offs showed just how perilously close he was to the sack.

Yet when he returns to his home city with the national team this week against Ecuador, he will arrive a hero, on the back of a brilliant World Cup – and the ballsiest decision of his coaching career in order to get there, after sending on Andrew Redmayne for the penalty shootout against Peru.

Graham Arnold steered the Socceroos to an impressive World Cup campaign

Such are the fine margins in modern football, Arnold could be forgiven for having the Shakespearean quote “as flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods.  They kill us for their sport” nailed to his living room wall.

Socceroos vs Ecuador Preview Show

In truth, that torturous qualifying campaign nearly killed Arnold professionally.  Exhausted by spending months overseas, and by the vehement criticism, he thought long and hard about extending his deal post-World Cup.  That he has chosen to stay on is either brave or foolish – he could easily have left with his legacy secure.  Now, he runs the risk of falling foul of his many critics once again.  Time will tell.

To avoid that scenario, he must build on the success of Qatar, and make a serious bid to win the Asian Cup in January next year.  That process starts on Friday in Parramatta.

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While many will attend to (rightly) laud the heroes from late last year, Arnold will no doubt have one eye on that upcoming major engagement.  It’s to this end he’s looked to generation next, and included the likes of Alexander Robertson, Jordan Bos, Aiden O’Neill and the precocious Nestory Irankunda.

Arnold’s teams have always been a blend of pragmatism and dynamism.  Structures are everything in how he builds his teams – though to be fair, it comes included with more than a dollop of freedom of expression in the attacking third; and it’s in that area of the pitch I’d love to see him really let this team rip.

The defensive line seems well set.  Mat Ryan remains the number one goalkeeper – Harry Souttar & Kye Rowles formed an impressive partnership in the middle in Qatar, and Aziz Behich had a standout World Cup.  Only the right-back position isn’t yet locked down – Nathaniel Atkinson, Fran Karacic and Milos Degenek were all utilised there in Qatar, and I’d love to see late inclusion, Ryan Strain, given an opportunity to show what he can do.

Aiden O'Neill has been one of the most consistent performers in the A-League Men's this season (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

In front of them, Aiden O’Neill’s emergence – or Cammy Devlin’s terrier-like qualities – could give the national team a true number six, one it has craved since the retirement of Mile Jedinak and Mark Milligan.

Further forward, with Aaron Mooy, Ajdin Hrustic, Mat Leckie and Martin Boyle all absent from the squad for one reason or another, is this the stage for some of the other young guns to stake their claim?

I must confess, the thought of Garang Kuol and Nestory Irankunda on either flank, is simply mouth-watering, if perhaps not a full 90-minute proposition just yet.  Jordan Bos is one of the most exciting talents to emerge from the A-League in recent years, and is another option in a wide area, even if Craig Goodwin is in arguably career-best form in that position.

Brandon Borrello’s incredible run as a number nine this season also deserves reward at some point during the double-header, as does the consistent goal-return of Jason Cummings.

Brandon Borrello is back in the Socceroos camp (Photo by Steve Christo - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

You can be sure Arnold will be looking at quite a few different combinations for this two-game series.  His plan has always been to build depth, and now, with the security of a new long-term contract, perhaps there is no time like the present for a slightly different version of the Socceroos.  One that really goes for the throat - at least at regional level.

Naturally however, that is dependent upon Ecuador being generous visitors, and that is certainly no guarantee.

El Tri were desperately unlucky not to qualify from the group at the World Cup, and they will be eager to impress their new coach, Felix Sanchez, who strangely enough, coached against Ecuador in the opening game of the tournament with Qatar.

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Sanchez has not had a lot of time to work with his new charges and has largely gone with the squad that went to the Middle East.  He also has some injuries to contend with – notably Enner Valencia, Gonzalo Plata, Carlos Gruezo and Jose Hurtado, none of whom will make the trip to Australia.

But he can still call upon some real quality – in particular, Moises Caicedo, who scored against Senegal at the World Cup, and plays regularly for Brighton in the English Premier League.  Piero Hincapie of Bayer Leverkusen, and Caicedo’s club team-mate, Pervis Estupinan, are the defensive standouts, and Sanchez has restored Junior Sornoza (arguably Ecuador’s best creative midfielder) to the squad, after he was controversially left out by predecessor, Gustavo Alfaro.

Keep an eye out for Ecuador's Piero Hincapie (Photo by Marvin Ibo Guengoer - GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)

Yet without Valencia, it is difficult to see where the goals will come from.  Ecuador have scored only four (Valencia netting three of them at the World Cup), in their last six matches, and they are thin on the ground for international class strikers.

The two who have travelled to Australia are Michael Estrada, who is currently on the periphery with his Mexican side, Cruz Azul, and hasn’t scored a domestic goal since last October – and Kevin Rodriguez, who went to the World Cup on the back of a season playing in the Ecuadorian second division.

Still – as they proved at the World Cup – they are well organized and difficult to break down, particularly with Jhegson Mendez and Alan Franco forming a solid-looking central midfield partnership.

Australia will therefore need to be at their attacking best.  Arnold has shown us he can be brave when the need arises – let’s hope he will unleash the hounds, and give Socceroos fans a real reason to believe the Asian Cup can be won for a second time next January.

2023 Subway Socceroos Fixtures

 Date Time (AEDT)  Event Comp  Location Watch
23 Mar 2230-2300 Socceroos Magazine Show - - Watch Now
24 Mar 1930-2230, kick off 2010 Socceroos vs Ecuador Friendly CommBank Stadium, Sydney Watch live and free on 10 (SYD/MEL), ADL from 2000 AEDT, 10 BOLD (BRI/PER), 10 Play, and Paramount+
28 Mar 1900-2200, kick off 1935 Socceroos vs Ecuador Friendly Marvel Stadium, Melbourne Watch live and free on 10 BOLD, 10 Play, and Paramount+

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