Socceroos rejoin long and winding road to Qatar with focus unchanged

Sport

It has been 567 days since the Socceroos last played, 567 days during which the world has been altered irrevocably and, yet, in terms of football, 567 days when it has also remained the same. Australia’s national team are still attempting to qualify for the World Cup, Graham Arnold still expects to win, and the coach is still calling for a longer A-League season.

Fifa windows, though, look a little different these days, and Friday morning’s meeting with Kuwait marks the start of four matches in 13 days with the carrot of progressing to Asia’s third round of qualifying by Tuesday week.

It really is that simple. The Socceroos, having won their opening four games, sit top of Group B, two points clear of Kuwait and Jordan with a game in hand and a goal difference of +15. Effectively, a win against Kuwait and Taiwan on Tuesday will do the trick, with Nepal and Jordan still to play.

However you spin it, the Socceroos are heavily favoured to progress undefeated. But for Arnold, who found it difficult to describe the feeling of returning to camp after an 18-month Covid-enforced hiatus, his side are “starting from scratch”.

“Yes we’re in a good position at the moment, but we’re not talking about the past,” Arnold said from the Kuwait hub. “We’re only talking about the present and what’s now, and that is Kuwait. I expect to win every game and expect to be on top of that group after those four games.”

He will do so with a slightly new-look starting XI against 148th-ranked Kuwait, featuring mostly Europe-based players who were able to leave their clubs early to join a training camp in the United Arab Emirates.

That includes Serie B regular Fran Karacic, who will start at right-back for Rhyan Grant, one of many late arrivals including several fellow A-League players and overseas-based trio Adam Taggart (Cerezo Osaka), Nikita Rukavytsya (Maccabi Haifa) and new face Kenny Dougall, fresh from his brace at Wembley which lifted Blackpool back into the Championship.

But it may be worthwhile to look further ahead on the road to Qatar 2022. The third round is a helter-skelter 10-plus games between September and March. And, whisper it, Asia is not an easy route to the World Cup finals.

If further proof is required of a general lack of awareness about and respect for Asian football, turn your attention to the pandemonium surrounding Celtic’s reported pursuit of Ange Postecoglou. Appointing a manager outside of European football is apparently baffling enough, let alone the sacrilege of luring one from the world’s largest continent.

But this is a continent with which Australian football enthusiasts would do well to become more familiar, if for no other reason than to appreciate that Australia will soon face more experienced teams with lightness of foot and tactical nous.

In terms of rankings, only Japan, Iran and Korea sit higher than the world No 41 Socceroos. But many in the current squad will remember well that Australia were knocked out of the 2019 Asian Cup quarter-finals by the 73rd-ranked UAE, that in the previous game they barely scraped past 86th-ranked Uzbekistan, and that in the group stage it took a stoppage-time winner from Tom Rogic to beat 79th-ranked Syria. It should have come as no surprise that world No 58 Qatar won that tournament. It wasn’t so long ago that Postecoglou’s Socceroos were charting a similar route through qualifiers for Russia 2018, and needed two play-off ties to get it done.

This is not highlighted in disrespect to Australia, but in respect to the teams they have and will yet face. It may be an issue front of mind when Arnold yet again spoke of his concern with the length of the A-League, from which a third of his 31-man squad were selected.

“I think it’s at least six or seven games too short,” he said of Australia’s 12-team, 26-round top-tier competition. “For me it’s all about match minutes and being able to play the game longer. I’m not the decision-maker, but you’re asking me the difference between the players – Ajdin Hrustic, all these kids – and it’s all around match minutes.

“I know we’ve talked about this many, many times before but in Australia we don’t play enough football,” Arnold said. “Harry Souttar, this year, has played 46 games. How do you get better at your trade? 46 games.

“Riley McGree is a completely different footballer today than when he left Adelaide, like a different specimen. That’s down to the amount of games he’s played in the Championship and playing for 10 months of the year, not six months.”

Even after 567 days, some things never change.