“It’s in our hands.” The phrase has become a sort of unofficial aphorism for Socceroos staff and players during this World Cup qualifying campaign. It was one employed throughout the previous phase of qualifying, when Australia kept a perfect record of eight wins, scoring 28 goals and conceding two. And it was used again by coach Graham Arnold after Thursday’s stalemate with Saudi Arabia.
Given his side still sit second in Group B – the top two automatically make Qatar 2022 – three points behind leaders Saudi Arabia with five matches to play, it remains true today. True in a general sense, but on the Richter scale of tight grips they probably rate about a six. A win over the Saudis would have made life easier, as would have a point against Japan who, courtesy of their win over Australia last month, are only one point behind them in third.
The margin for error has shrunk, making Wednesday morning’s tie with China more crucial than it may otherwise have been. A blunder in the United Arab Emirates would allow Japan to climb past them with a win over Oman (fourth on seven points) on Wednesday, while Saudi Arabia can lengthen their lead by beating last-placed Vietnam on Tuesday night.
“It is tight, but it’s the last phase of qualifying for a World Cup,” said midfielder James Jeggo, who made his 10th international cap in a full match against the Green Falcons. “There’s a lot of good teams, it’s very competitive. It’s always been like that in Asia. We know what’s at stake.”
All of that said, the Socceroos should account for China with relative ease, having seen off the fourth-placed nation 3-0 in September. That was a home match but was, because of Covid restrictions, played on neutral territory in Doha. This one will be so for China, in the city of Sharjah.
Theoretically this fixture should mark a return to normality for a team who, in this qualifying cycle, have swept aside every Asian minnow in their path en route to a world-record 11 successive wins. The by-product of that success has been a lack of opposition with an ability to truly test them. Japan and Saudi filled this void, and in doing so highlight previously concealed vulnerabilities, particularly in attack despite periods of clear forward momentum.
Defensively, Arnold will be without a key player in Harry Souttar, who was stretchered off the field at CommBank Stadium on Thursday with a knee injury was confirmed on Monday to have torn his ACL. The injury will sideline the towering Stoke City centre-back for the remainder of the qualifying campaign and even put him in doubt for the World Cup, should Australia qualify.
“Obviously it’s a loss, losing Harry,” Arnold said. “But what can you do? You’ve just got to get on with it and be positive with the players that we’ve got and move forward … it’s a setback, he understands that, but he knows that it’s going to make him stronger in the long-run and make him mentally tougher. As I said to him, ‘you will be at the World Cup with us. Get yourself ready and get yourself fit.’”
In the meantime, it renders the fitness of Trent Sainsbury all the more important. Sainsbury played the full 90 minutes against Saudi Arabia but will have to prove his fitness after pulling up with a sore hamstring.
“Milos has come back in very good condition. He plays at Red Star [Belgrade], he’s at a very successful club in a very good competition,” Arnold said. “We saw Serbia last night beating Portugal, that just shows you the type of players that they’re developing and what they’ve got in their country and Milos is playing there every week and doing well. I’ve got the utmost respect and trust in Milos that he will do a great job for us.”
He will have the help of defenders Ryan McGowan and Bailey Wright, who were called up to replace Souttar at the expense of Andrew Nabbout, against a China team with one win from their five matches played.
“There’s a lot of problems at the moment in Chinese football,” Arnold said. “They’re having to play all their games away from home, which is not far off what’s happened with us. At times, that can build camaraderie and we’ve just got to make sure we get our performance right ... make sure you’re mentally prepared.”
At the halfway point of this phase, World Cup qualification is in Australia’s hands. But with games against Saudi Arabia and Japan still to come, they must keep it in their grasp.