Socceroos sit pretty in World Cup qualifying but tougher tests lie ahead

Richard Parkin on 14 November 2019

For bleary-eyed Socceroos fans braving an inhospitable midmorning kick-off it was perhaps a tale of smug self-satisfaction, followed by increasingly bewildered self-accusation.

In what was billed as Australia’s toughest assignment of AFC second round qualifying, given Jordan’s status as the Socceroos’ bogey side, for 45 minutes Australia appeared imperious.

They were cool, clinical, in control. Everything fans would have wanted to see. The Socceroos enjoyed almost two-thirds of possession, out-passed their opponents nearly two-to-one and didn’t concede a single shot on target.

Adam Taggart’s well-taken 13th-minute goal was precisely the play for which Socceroos tragics have been crying out. From deep, a pass from James Jeggo to find Jackson Irvine, a sharp turn and immediate look forward and then an even better ball to find the run of the K-League joint-top scorer. One deft finish, off two incisive vertical passes. Jordan’s centre-backs bisected with geometric precision – the kind of move that takes the sting out of a vocal home crowd, and reassures teammates that the game is very much going to plan.

For Graham Arnold, the decision to start Irvine almost as a second playmaker, but positioned out wide on the left in Mathew Leckie’s absence, appeared an early masterstroke. An excellent link-man between the lone forward, his combination with Brad Smith marauding from left-back was especially impressive, pinning Jordan back with abandon.

So too, the long-awaited return in gold of Tom Rogic appeared heaven sent. In one cameo just before half-time the Celtic playmaker provided three touches in three seconds to remind Australia precisely what they miss when he’s not there.

With three opponents looking to pinch the ball, Rogic was first to anticipate and calculate the flight of a looping ball which he brought down superbly. His second touch appeared a prod, away from danger while he used his body to shield the expected challenge, but it was also a disguise. It suggested he was under pressure when he was anything but. It invited the eager challenge, before with a third deft stab he conjured a pass between the two would-be tacklers.

Twenty-five metres from his own goal it was calmness personified. Some would have hoiked the first ball aimlessly forward, others might have thumped it back to the safety of the goalkeeper. But only Rogic had all three touches in his mind as soon as the moment arose.

What could have been the start of a lightning counter-attack died at the first touch of his receiving teammate; it was perhaps a portent of what was to come.

Jeered off by his own supporters, Jordan’s under-fire Dutch coach Vital Borklemans made an immediate half-time change. An attacking shift as on came the hugely impressive Mousa Suleiman, who immediately looked to besiege at will, twisting and turning with pace and control to instantly trouble the Socceroos defence.

It may have taken nearly an hour for Jordan to register a first shot on target, but from there the chances came thick and fast. The dangerous Hamza Al-Dardoor replaced Baha’ Seif at the spear’s head, and Jordan’s third all-time top scorer could and should have added to his tally as the Socceroos backline appeared increasingly negligent.

The decline of Australians playing in the top-five leagues of Europe was documented recently by the PFA; that Mat Ryan is the only Socceroo appearing regularly in the upper echelons of world football was apparent in Amman, as lapses in attention and application invited Jordan to notch an equaliser. Only the strong left hand of Ryan denied Al-Dardoor late on, after his headed effort was brilliantly rebuffed.

Tellingly, Ryan was also the only Socceroo on the pitch with over 50 caps. Blooding new faces is a necessary part of any World Cup campaign, especially one as long as Australia’s tortuous route through Asia. The invitation remains there for players that aren’t quite household names to step up and stamp their influence on games. That Australia could allow their first-half dominance to slide so precariously in Amman suggests that mentally, many are not anywhere near the level of the likes of Mile Jedinak or Tim Cahill – able to arrest a contest almost single-handedly, as much through endeavour as force of personality.

The table doesn’t lie. With four wins from four games and the most difficult match of this round of qualifying successfully navigated, the Socceroos have every right to be pleased. More pleasing for fans though is to see more of the first half showing, and less of the second. With Jordan the 16th best side in Asia, tougher tests lie ahead. And away trips to Tehran, Tokyo or Riyadh won’t quite be as forgiving.

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