The Socceroos are confusing to analyse at the moment. On Friday morning, Graham Arnold’s side made it 11 wins on the bounce when they defeated Oman 3-1 at the Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar – setting a new world record for the most over consecutive wins in a single World Cup campaign.
Shaking off a shaky opening to emerge two-goal victors thanks to Martin Boyle and Mitch Duke’s second-half strikes, the three points earned in the Middle East ensure they remain top of their group and, thanks to Japan’s 1-0 loss to Saudi Arabia, possess a six-point safety buffer above the non-automatic qualifications slots.
“I think the boys did extremely well,” Arnold said after the match. “I thought that probably in the first half we got dragged into an erratic game. [It was] very end to end and very open. And that was probably not what we wanted.
“But at half-time when I could get the players in and calm them down we focused on a few of the weaknesses from Oman and I thought in the second half we did exceptionally well.”
Al Mandhar Al Alawi’s 28th-minute equaliser may have broken a seven-plus hour streak without a goal conceded by the men in green and gold, but thus far in 2022 AFC World Cup qualifying, they have scored 35 goals and conceded just three in 11 matches.
Now a win over the suddenly goal-shy Japan in Saitama on Tuesday evening would not only serve to deal a hammer blow to their rivals’ hopes of automatic qualification to a seventh-straight World Cup but also place them in the box-seat for automatic qualification to a fifth appearance in a row.
When laid out in such a manner, Australia’s form since they resumed international action in June engenders a sense of dominance, invincibility and inevitability; an Australian team making a mockery of cries to respect the growth and development of Asian football as they bully and sweep their foes before them in striding confidently towards the World Cup.
Yet therein lies the problem with fashioning a narrative based upon the stat sheet or table as, for all their success and wins, the Socceroos are still searching for a signature win or performance on the road to Qatar 2022. Their performances have been professional and got the job done but none have been of the variety that would make one sit up and take notice.
It did not reach the same levels of frustrating bluntness as the win over Vietnam, but the performance against Oman was not as expansive as the scoreline suggests; the Socceroos once again struggled to break down an embedded defence and at times looked shaky against a side breaking quickly in transition. Thus far, their three wins during this phase of qualification have come against the three lowest sides in the group . Sterner tests to come against Japan and Saudi Arabia are to come.
But the question is, should Australia care? For all the veneration received by sides that exemplify joga bonito, football matches are not yet awarded on style points or highlights (although given recent moves it cannot be put past someone at Fifa trying to institute such a system at some point). An ugly, 1-0 win on a bog in Hanoi is worth just as many points as a surgical dissection of a defence.
Further, that the Socceroos have maintained their record-setting form without a game since November 2019 on home soil – where history suggests their record is significantly improved – represents a remarkable achievement. Recent wins have also come without the presence of key figures such as Mat Leckie and Jamie Maclaren – Australia-based players almost entirely ruled out due to the country’s strict 14-day quarantine period.
There is every chance at some point the Socceroos’ luck will run out and that better sides such as Japan (if they can steady the ship) and Saudi Arabia will expose the weaknesses that exist and that the lack of killer edge will, with the benefit of hindsight, come back to bite.
But one can’t denigrate the side for something that might happen. Arnold’s job is not to qualify for the World Cup playing pretty football, his job is simply to ensure that Australia is one of 32 nations on the ground in Qatar when the tournament commences next December. That mission is set out by a federation that probably recognises how devastating missing a World Cup would be to the game. From all appearances, that looks like what he is set to do.