17 April 2016
With comfortable wins over Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh following the loss in Jordan, Australia’s final two matches at home were mostly academic. Two draws most likely would have been sufficient to qualify for the third round and final group phase of World Cup qualifying, while a win would guarantee it. Tajikistan proved to offer minimal resistance, losing 7-0 in Adelaide, while Jordan weren’t much better in their 5-1 loss in Sydney. Tajikistan conceded within 3 minutes and then another on 13 minutes before a 5-goal onslaught in the second half. Jordan lasted until the 24th minute before conceding, then conceded another two just before half time. Game over. For Jordan, after losing in Kyrgyzstan two games earlier and now requiring a win to guarantee a spot in the next round, it was heartbreaking. Remember, this was the team that made the intercontinental play-off in the last cycle.
Most interesting to observe from these final two games was the team’s progression. They have had trouble putting teams away, and been dumb strategically. They were also too reliant on the aging Tim Cahill. Other players needed to step up, while the team needed to be smarter in their approach. Preferring more often to take the game to opponents, particularly away in the Middle East, it played into the hands of opponents, who’d sit back and pounce on the counter attack. Australia needs to remember that their opponents also are in it to win it, so away from home, let them be more adventurous and hit them on the break. Against Jordan, that philosophy was illustrated perfectly, and the results were comprehensive. They turned around a 2-0 loss away to a 5-1 win by simply allowing their opponents force some of the pressure.
Even more exciting was the improvement in many players. Robbie Kruse, who was finally back after a long injury spell, toyed with Jordan. It was one of his best games for Australia ever, and only dampened by a nasty tackle from behind by Jordan’s Yousef al Rawashde. How it wasn’t a red was mystifying. Even worse would have been another injury. Jordan were so rattled that they even threw a second ball on the field at one stage to stop a quick throw in. It failed miserably as Australia scored their fifth goal. Tom Rogic, now established in Scotland, has added a lethal shot and far superior decision making to his game. The three goals he scored in those two games were superb. Melbourne City’s Aaron Mooy has taken command in midfield, setting up and scoring goals. His passing is sublime, at a level not really seen in the Socceroos since Ned Zelic, or Milan Ivanovic with some of the long passing. Coach Ange Postecoglou even unearthed a bright new talent in Apostolos Giannou. He got his debut against Tajikistan, impressed with his pace and power, and only letdown by missing a sitter. He deserved a goal. Another letdown, becoming persistent too, is Matthew Leckie. He seems to have lost the plot, particularly with final balls into the box and shooting.
Onwards to the draw for the final group phase of qualifying. It’s no secret that the Socceroo Realm, as would many Australians, would love to see Australia play Iran again. It’s been nearly 20 years since the infamous Iran Game. Much of the chatter before the Jordan game was for Australia to win it to ensure a seeding as one of the top two teams. Supposedly that would avoid a tougher draw – based on FIFA rankings. No it wouldn’t, because FIFA rankings are a joke in their creation, and meaningless in a competitive field. Australia, Iran, Japan and Korea are arguably the top four teams in Asia and there’s little between them whatever some silly FIFA number sitting next to them wants to make us believe. In drawing the final two groups, two of these top four would play each other regardless. The only exception being that the top seed in each pot would not play each other. So for Australia to have a random chance at either Iran, Japan or Korea, they needed not to be seeded. As it turns out, they were one of the top two seeds. Guess which was the other? Iran. Depressing, and rigged. The top four should have been in one pot and randomly paired that way. In fact, the other 8 teams should be in one pot too, and randomly drawn. There should not be such a strict interpretation of these dopey FIFA rankings.
Immediately we knew Australia could not play Iran, so let’s hope we at least draw some new teams. We haven’t played Korea at all in World Cup qualifying since our entry into Asia, and drawing them would add to the rivalry generated from the epic Asian Cup 2015 final. Except for an early group phase two cycles ago, we’ve missed China too. Alas, nothing went our way. We got Japan for the third straight cycle, Thailand and three Middle Eastern teams. The only salvation is that Saudi Arabia is back on the ascend, so they should be interesting. UAE are on the rise too, finishing third in the Asian Cup. Iraq is the other team, who finished fourth in the Asian Cup, and can be dangerous. It’s a challenging draw.
01 Sep 2016: Australia vs Iraq
06 Sep 2016: UAE vs Australia
06 Oct 2016: Saudi Arabia vs Australia
11 Oct 2016: Australia vs Japan
15 Nov 2016: Thailand vs Australia
23 Mar 2017: Iraq vs Australia
28 Mar 2017: Australia vs UAE
13 Jun 2017: Australia vs Saudi Arabia
13 Aug 2017: Japan vs Australia
05 Sep 2017: Australia vs Thailand
Note that there are six teams in each group, up from five from previous years. Obviously this is to allow more teams to be involved. It also means no more byes. The away trip to Japan is the second last match day, which could affect its prestige if both teams are safely qualified. The top two teams from each group automatically qualify for Russia 2018, with the two third teams playing off for a spot against CONCACAF’s fourth best team. That third-placed playoff is actually the only way Australia and Iran can meet in this World Cup qualifying cycle. Could it happen?
Round 2 Group Winners
Group A: Saudi Arabia
Group B: Australia
Group C: Qatar
Group D: Iran
Group E: Japan
Group F: Thailand
Group G: Korea Republic
Group H: Uzbekistan
Round 2 Best Second-Placed Teams
3. United Arab Emirates
Round 3 Group Draw
Group A: Iran, Korea Republic, Uzbekistan, China, Qatar, Syria
Group B: Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Thailand