Mabil and Maclaren put Australia on course for Asian Cup win over Palestine

Stephen Ganavas at Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium on 11 January 2019

While tougher challenges lie ahead, the Socceroos answered some of the questions being posed of their quality as they produced a scintillating performance to beat Palestine 3-0 in front of 11,915 fans in Dubai.

A first-half one-two punch from the Australians did the bulk of the damage. The opener came in the 18th minute as a delightfully weighted cross from Chris Ikonomidis found Jamie Maclaren in between two defenders. Maclaren glanced a header into the far corner to score his first goal for his country.

Two minutes later, the two youngest players on the field combined as a sumptuous cross from Ikonomidis found an onrushing Awer Mabil at the back post, who dutifully side-footed into the net from point-blank range. A 90th minute goal from substitute Apostolos Giannou capped off a well-rounded performance from Australia.

Graham Arnold spoke glowingly of the young attacking players that helped to propel his team to victory. He highlighted in particular their “energy”, reserving special praise for the defensive pressing qualities of Maclaren. Arnold also elaborated on how happy he is for the striker to have broken his goal-scoring duck at international level. “I love Jamie as a player,” Arnold said. “His movement in the box is always good. He’s just needed a bit of belief and confidence.”

With a two-goal cushion midway through the first half, the feeling of relaxation was evident as the Socceroos began knocking the ball around comfortably and searching for more avenues towards goal. It also went some way to hushing – although not silencing – an enthusiastic Palestinian contingent of fans at the Rashid Stadium.

Awer Mabil scored his third goal in six games for Australia.
Awer Mabil scored his third goal in six games for Australia. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP

There was a sense that things had just started to turn Australia’s way after the frustrating opening match defeat to Jordan. Suddenly, the ball seemed to fall fortuitously and tight refereeing calls, such as the decision to award a yellow card to Palestine’s Jonathan Zorrilla for simulation, seemed to routinely fall in Australia’s favour. Though the lack of Palestinian pressure, intensity and organisation in comparison to Jordan must also be acknowledged. Conversely, Palestine coach Nourredine Ould Ali described his opponent’s approach as “100% pressure”, adding that individual mistakes were instrumental to his team’s downfall.

The Socceroos seemed content to preserve their lead in the second half. They controlled the tempo through midfield and were rarely stretched defensively. In goal, Mat Ryan might never have enjoyed a more relaxing game for his country.

Some credit for the result must also be given to Graham Arnold, who made three changes to his starting XI from the game against Jordan. While questions over his perceived arrogance will likely cease only if the Socceroos are able to lift the Asian Cup on February 1, Arnold cannot be criticised for lack of imagination. The Socceroos manager was evidently happy with the offerings of his three substitutes in the first game, as Ikonomidis, Jackson Irvine and Rhyan Grant were all thrust into the starting lineup. And they did not let their manager down.

Grant was replacing the injured Josh Risdon while Ikonomidis seemed a logical replacement for the out of form Robbie Kruse. Post-game, Arnold noted that his decision to replace Massimo Luongo with Irvine was tactical, as he knew Palestine would try to play long balls – favouring Irvine’s ability in the air.

Massive improvements from important senior figures in Rogic and Mark Milligan also helped. This undoubtedly was rewarding for Arnold who was always confident that his players would bounce back from a defeat he considered an anomaly.

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The result leaves Australia poised to take second place in Group B, barring defeat to Syria in the final game. With Jordan now on six points, Australia can no longer top the group as head-to-head record is used to rank teams on level points. Even with a loss to Syria, Australia could still qualify for the round of 16 as one of the four best third-placed teams.

A second-placed finish will potentially see the Socceroos matched up against Oman, who they beat 5-0 in their final warm-up game for the tournament. Before that though, a return to Al-Ain to face Syria must be negotiated.

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