Australian relief palpable as Socceroos' Asian Cup defence gets back on course

Scott McIntyre at Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium on 11 January 2019

The sight of Mat Ryan – before he donned an AFC branded cap for the second half that made him look like a weekend golfer – running the length of the pitch to celebrate Australia’s first goal in a 3-0 win over Palestine said it all.

The relief of Australia’s first goal at the tournament, coming in the 18th minute, and the first of Jamie Maclaren’s international career was a huge release of the pressure that had been building from the opening Asian Cup loss to Jordan.

This was a vastly improved showing right from the start as the Socceroos pushed high up the pitch, moved the ball with far greater fluidity than they had against the Jordanians and scored three well-taken goals to kick-start their title defence in the glare of the early Dubai afternoon.

The day began in unusual fashion as a massive fire at a nearby plastics factory sent billowing plumes of black smoke into the air that took three firefighting squads more than five hours to contain but the Socceroos had noticeably less trouble in extinguishing the limited threat of the West Asian minnows.

Palestine have only scored once in the history of the Asian Cup and on the few occasions that they threatened here Ryan and a stout defence, marshalled well by Trent Sainsbury and Milos Degenek, dealt with those issues without a great deal of trouble.

Having collected a second booking Sainsbury will be absent for the upcoming clash with Syria and Palestine showed just how hard it can be to cope with a defensive reshuffle.

The nation’s leading central defender, Mohammed Saleh – the Malta-based player rather than Liverpool’s Egyptian forward – was suspended for this clash and Australia took full advantage of those enforced changes.

Indeed, all three goals came from crosses, the first a delightful swipe of the magical left-foot of Tom Rogic that Maclaren nodded home and the next two, scored by Awer Mabil and Apo Gianno, via an impressive Chris Ikonomidis.

The Perth Glory forward was one of three changes made by Graham Arnold, with Jackson Irvine and Rhyan Grant coming in for Robbie Kruse, Massimo Luongo and Josh Risdon.

Those moves certainly had the desired impact for a Socceroos team that started from a far more promising base than they had against Jordan with the two central defenders pushed high up the pitch, the central midfielders, Mark Milligan and Irvine split wide and the fullbacks, Grant and Aziz Behich, also in far more advanced roles.

Those increased numbers higher up the pitch against opponents who were content to drop deep saw Australia again dominate possession but the difference here was that the team was far more patient in waiting for passing lanes to open.

“We started the game much better and much more positively and from there I think we dominated,” captain Mark Milligan said. “The ball movement was good and with a purpose and we were more patient in picking our time when to execute because we knew that if we did keep the ball moving and keep them moving about we’d create chances.”

The win moves Australia into second place before a decisive clash with Syria, who fired their coach moments after a 2-0 loss to Jordan on Thursday. With Jordan already qualified as group winners it’s not out of the question that they could take things easy on a Palestinian side that they share close bonds with in the final group match.

That means that Australia know they must pick up at least a point against a Syrian side that is sure to be highly motivated, with a new coach in place, to ensure they keep their title hopes alive.

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