‘Home advantage is a big thing’: Socceroos challenge Saudi Arabia | Emma Kemp

It has been 763 days since Australia’s last home game, and this one could make or break their World Cup qualifying campaign

It was a point to which those in the Socceroos camp were happy to give air time, and rightly so.

“They’ve have been fortunate [in] that they’ve played all their World Cup qualifiers at home except for Oman,” coach Graham Arnold said on match day minus one. “We’ve played 11 out of 12 games away from home, they’ve played 11 out of 12 games at home.”

They being Saudi Arabia, Thursday night’s opponents. Opponents who sit top of Group B, three points ahead of Australia. Opponents who have not lost a match in this phase on the road to Qatar 2022, achieving those results either within their own country or just over the border.

Also, pertinently, opponents who have never won on Australian soil. Soil on which both teams will tread at Sydney’s Commbank Stadium with a whole lot riding on the result. The positive omen for the Socceroos is that it’s been a long time since they last lost a World Cup qualifier at home – 4,890 days, to be exact.

It was on 22 June, 2008 that Australia went down 1-0 in a dead rubber against China under Pim Verbeek, who rested his stars in the knowledge the next phase of qualifying for South Africa 2010 was assured.

That match, in front of 70,000 at ANZ Stadium, was the national team’s first home World Cup qualifying defeat since 16 May, 1981, when Rudi Gutendorf – the late German known for the number of teams he managed (a world-record 55, including 18 national sides) – oversaw a 2-0 disaster against New Zealand at the SCG. That one mattered, and Australia failed to qualify for the 1982 finals in Spain.

Now, with a place at next year’s showpiece tournament on the line, 763 days since their last home game, the Socceroos will sit the toughest examination of their campaign to date.

“We’ve been away for so long, and home advantage is a big thing in football,” the forward Mathew Leckie said on Wednesday. “I think history shows how strong we are at home. It’s tough for the other teams to also come over and play against us. We’ll definitely be coming out with a heap of energy and putting them on the back foot early, trying to control the game from the first minute.”

Arnold agreed overall with Leckie’s sentiment. “I expect our mentality to be one of getting in their faces and making sure we’re on the front foot right from the start and not giving them any time to play,” he said.

Socceroos coach Graham Arnold (middle) and his assistant René Meulensteen (left) oversee training in Sydney this week.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold (middle) and his assistant René Meulensteen (left) oversee training in Sydney this week. Photograph: Matt King/Getty Images

Easier said than done, given Hervé Renard’s Saudi Arabia are tight at the back with a penchant for punishing mistakes. The Green Falcons are vastly improved under the Frenchman, who has won the Africa Cup of Nations with both Zambia (2012) and Ivory Coast (2015), and has instilled a renewed sense of belief.

The visitors are aiming for a ninth straight victory that would make them favourites to qualify with five matches to play. Still, some key players are unavailable and those remaining are up against both history and an Australian team who recently notched an 11th consecutive win – a world record for a single World Cup campaign – against Oman last month. That streak was ended by Japan four days later.

Thursday night, then, doubles as an opportunity to respond to that dressing down in Saitama. Beat the Saudis and then China next week, and the Socceroos could yet lead the six-team group heading into the final two windows early next year, with the top two automatically qualifying.

However, Arnold is also missing important players: the regular midfield starters Aaron Mooy is absent due to club commitments, while Tom Rogic and the forward Adam Taggart are both injured. He has “mentally” settled on a starting XI but noted that Wednesday night’s training session was the first involving the full squad.

Suffice to say there will be changes, one of which may be the inclusion of Jamie Maclaren, who has not represented Australia since June. Ditto Maclaren’s Melbourne City teammates Leckie and Andrew Nabbout, the latter of whom has not played since the 2019 Asian Cup due to issues with form and fitness but is regaining the spark that made him Bert van Marwijk’s first-choice striker before the 2018 World Cup.

Given the absences, the trio could yet play a part in stopping the Saudi counterattack and opening up their defence, which has conceded three goals from four games in this phase of qualifying – the same as the Socceroos.

Like Maclaren, Leckie opted against travelling overseas for the four matches in September and October due to Australia’s quarantine requirements when returning home, but is ready for a 66th cap.

“I always want to be there and for many years now I’ve barely missed camps, so it was a tough decision but sitting there and supporting the boys,” Leckie said. “I was proud of the way we played. The boys have put us in a really good position in the qualification.

“Although I wasn’t there, I could see how everyone was out there, and the mentality … I’m just happy to be back, and I’m just buzzing for the game. I feel in great shape – I’ve had a long time to be able to get myself ready.”

Like Leckie, Arnold was positive about playing in front of a home crowd for the first time since beating Nepal 5-0 in October 2019. “Obviously it will be great to have our 12th man here,” he said. “But the focus for me is on our performance and getting the game plan right.”


Emma Kemp

The GuardianTramp

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