Tim Cahill was the guest of honour at the draw for the second qualifying round for the 2022 World Cup but for Australia, there was none of the usual explosive excitement associated with the country’s record goalscorer. The Socceroos’ Group B, in keeping with the surprisingly pokey surrounding of AFC House in Kuala Lumpur, is a little on the dull side.
Fans around the continent can look forward to the Korean derby, a clash between Iran and Iraq clash and all kinds of southeast Asian needle games but there is not that much for Socceroos fans to get excited about, even if Graham Arnold may not lament the absence of excitement at this stage.
While there are two fresh opponents in the shape of Nepal and Taiwan these games will be of interest mainly for their novelty (for fans as well as players) rather than competitive tension. When it comes to the main rivals for top spot and a guaranteed place in the next stage of qualification, however, there is a certain amount of familiarity with Kuwait and especially Jordan. That will not breed contempt – Australian fingers have been burnt before – but there will be few looking forward to the forthcoming trips to the Middle East.
Jordan have been almost constant companions in recent years. It started with their 2-0 win over Australia in September 2012, when there were only 16,000 people present at the stadium in Amman, but it felt like more. Jordan fans have complained their players can be lions at home and lambs away but they were the ones doing the roaring that evening. It was an unforgettable night, one that was then repeated three years later.
Both times Australia responded with convincing home wins but were again on the receiving end of a loss in January’s Asian Cup, the first competitive meeting played on neutral soil. It was a painful and frustrating defeat for the Socceroos, who had plenty of possession and chances, and led to Arnold being accused of arrogance. If Australia had to eat some humble pie then, they will soon have the chance to serve up some ice cold revenge.
Kuwait will be another unwelcome destination for their opening game on 10 September. Taiwan was a pot 3 opponent that was gratefully accepted, but Kuwait marked perhaps the most difficult test in pot 4. The team’s ranking is lower than it should be after a two-year Fifa-imposed international ban was lifted in December 2017. Kuwait have not played a competitive game since 2015, the regional Gulf Cup notwithstanding, and will be something of an unknown quantity.
Interestingly Kuwait have been warming up for the start of qualification with a tour of English non-league clubs. Wins at Marlow and Hungerford were followed by a loss to Maidenhead. The toughest test is to come against Reading. As well as English knowhow, coach Romeo Jozak is familiar with Australia – after extensive experience developing young talent in his homeland of Croatia, he was on a shortlist of two to become FFA’s technical director in 2014 but was pipped to the post by Eric Abrams.
Continuing the Asian connection with England, Taiwan are led by an Englishman, Louis Lancaster, who took a major step in 2016 to leave his homeland and head to China as assistant to Gary White at Shanghai Shenxin. Lancaster followed his compatriot as he took the Taiwan job in 2017 and stayed on when White left for pastures new. Taiwan have been showing improvements and while they are not the pushovers they once were, even Arnold could not be accused of arrogance if he talked up victory before the game.
Last – and in terms of Fifa rankings least – come Nepal. These South Asian minnows have never been near a World Cup but as luck would have it, have played Taiwan and Kuwait this year already.
New coach, Swede Johan Kalin, managed a draw and a narrow defeat against Kuwait in March and then held Taiwan to a 1-1 tie in Kaohsiung last month. That came just a few days after a loss in Malaysia where Nepal impressed with some of their play, though the team’s struggles in front of goal were once again in evidence.
To score against Australia would be a big deal in Kathmandu but the goal for the Socceroos is much more simple. Just finish top without any major dramas. In a fairly uninspiring group, that should be possible. Revenge over Jordan in Amman would, however, be an added bonus.