At the end of a tight, scoreless, 120 minutes in Al Ain it took penalties to split Australia and Uzbekistan with Mathews Ryan and Leckie standing up when it most counted to send the Socceroos into the Asian Cup quarter-finals. Keeper Ryan made two superb saves and the returning Leckie coolly slotted home the decisive spot kick as Australia edged the Uzbeks 4-2 in the shootout to book their place in Saturday’s last-eight game against hosts UAE.
But the euphoria of the win might gloss over the fact that Australia had a mountain of trouble in breaking down tightly-packed opposition. Equally, though, the Uzbeks rarely threatened at the other end and remarkably Ryan made the same number of saves in the shootout (two) that he did in the preceding two hours of action.
Losing Tom Rogic to suspension for the next match won’t help with the UAE also expected to sit deep and look to frustrate the Socceroos, but with such a steady presence at the back Australia will always be a hard side to beat. Along with Iran’s Alireza Beiranvand, Ryan has been the best keeper in the tournament and it was the 26-year-old’s initial save that helped keep Australia level in the shootout after Aziz Behich had seen his effort, the team’s second, saved.
Having lightheartedly declared that he’s not a “mind reader” when asked if he had an idea of which way to dive during the shootout, Ryan did admit that his late heroics were a mixture of preparation and luck.
“There’s a lot of technology available in this day and age that you take advantage of and just before the game there are some clips we look at [of previous Uzbekistan penalties] and you see if you can pick up anything off it,” he said. “As a goalkeeper you need a bit of luck though with the decision you make in terms of if you go one side or stay up the middle and also luck in terms of the shooter making the same decision and then you can make the save and thankfully it happened twice today.”
His teammates were indebted to him and as the Brighton & Hove Albion player stood talking with the assembled press post-match, a collection of Socceroos delivered a series of what can be construed as compliments – including “king”, “tiger” and “champ” – on their way past.
So too Leckie, who made a telling contribution in his first action of the tournament after finally overcoming a hamstring injury. Introduced in the 68th minute, the forward immediately provided a sharper cutting edge to an Australian attack that had struggled to break down a well-organised Uzbek side. His performance will give coach Graham Arnold food for thought as he weighs up whether to throw him in from the start against the UAE.
The most telling contribution from the Hertha Berlin man, though, came at the most important juncture as he stepped up as Australia’s fifth penalty taker, knowing a successful effort would secure their spot in the final eight.
“A few of the boys that had taken penalties before me noticed that their keeper stood up and held his feet for a very long time,” Leckie said. “When I went up I thought if I hit it hard and in a corner even if he chooses the right way then he waits so long he won’t be able to save it and in the end I ended up hitting it really, really hard and it was the perfect penalty at the perfect time.”
It was also a vindication of the gamble that the Socceroos staff took in including a player in the final 23-man squad who they knew might not be able to feature at all in the tournament due to an injury suffered with his Bundesliga side.
“When I sat down with the medical staff at the start of the tournament they said there’s a small chance that something could go wrong along the way and I said I’m ready to take the risk because any chance to play at the Asian Cup I wanted to take,” the 27-year-old said. “Then Arnie had to take a decision as well whether he wanted to take the risk on a spot on a player who isn’t going to play in the group stage and in the end so far I guess it’s worked out well but there’s still a long way to go in the tournament.”
Three matches to be precise are what now stand between the Socceroos and a successful defence of their Asian Cup crown. Improvement is needed – Andrew Nabbout’s expected return to fitness should provide a further boost – but in a tournament where no nation has yet laid down a real marker, Australian hopes remain alive.