When Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006 there was the enticing prospect of establishing rivalries with the continent’s giants such as Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yet it is Jordan that have become the Socceroos’ unlikely nemesis, winning three of the five competitive games the two have played.
If that becomes four from six on Thursday in Amman, the journey for Australia from the second stage of World Cup qualification to the third – where places in Qatar are up for grabs – shifts from comfortable stroll to a more hurried dash. Victory, however, means 12 points from four Group B games with four to play and top spot virtually assured.
History is against Australia. During qualification for the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, both visits to Amman ended in defeat. This week it could be a case of third time lucky but a win would mean more than three points.
For the current squad, this is a chance to lay down a marker of sorts. It has been said that this crop of players do not measure up to past sides. Yet in 2012, a team including Tim Cahill, Mark Bresciano, Mark Schwarzer and Lucas Neill lost in Amman. The 2019 team achieving something the 2012 edition could not would be, at the very least, a confidence boost bigger than the two big wins in October provided.
Australia scored 12 goals in those thrashings of Nepal and Taiwan, as strikers Jamie Maclaren and Adam Taggart got their international eyes in. But considering Jordan have conceded just once in their three games so far, chances will be far scarcer in Amman.
This is the hardest game of the round and Arnold, who has lost Mathew Leckie with the forward staying in Berlin for the birth of his second child, is expecting a deep-sitting host. “We know what their strengths are,” Arnold said when announcing the squad. “We know what their weaknesses are, we know that they’ll sit deep in a block and we’ve been working on that for the last three camps on how to break that type of game down.”
The coach has a decent idea as he was in charge for the first meeting with Jordan in 2019. That ended in a 1-0 defeat during January’s Asian Cup. Jordan boss Vital Borkelmans, who also remains in the opposite dugout, insists his gameplan will be a positive one. “We are a team that always look to score – always,” Borkelmans told Guardian Australia. “This is the same when we play a strong team like Australia.”
The Belgian is an admirer of Australian football, having made over 400 appearances for Club Brugge alongside some famous Australian exports. “I played many years with quality players from there like Frank Farina and Paul Okon – great players and professionals. Mat Ryan was one of the best keepers Club Brugge have ever had. I like Australia and the people and I like the Australian mentality.”
Jordan’s strength is a well-worked and speedy transition. It was not on display in a frustrating 0-0 draw at home to Kuwait in October but the 2015 Asian champions will push forward more than Kuwait. At least that is what the counter-attacking Jordan – who welcome back leading scorer Hamza Al Dardour – are hoping for.
Preparation for the hosts has been up and down. There has been a lack of league action for the domestic-based players but that means plenty of training camp time. “My players don’t have the same big salary as the Australians and some get paid just $300-$400 a month and this is a huge difference,” said Borkelmans. “They play with a big heart though and each game is do or bust.”
Fans fear bust. The highs of the wins over Australia and Syria at the Asian Cup have almost been forgotten. While Jordan have seven points and will go top with a win, supporters were not happy with the performances against Nepal and Kuwait in October. Criticisms include predictable and inflexible tactics from the coach as well as a tendency to make substitutions too late.
“Against Nepal and Kuwait some fans shouted ‘Vital out, Vital out’,’ Borkelmans, a former assistant with Belgium, said. “The fans are disappointed in so many things but I never feel the pressure. I am 56. I have worked with the number one team in the world. I do my best, my staff work at a high level and the fans can shout but I don’t listen. I do my job and know what I do. This country is having a difficult time economically so we want to make some big news and we will give 200% against Australia.”