After a long and dramatic qualifying campaign, Australia are heading to the FIFA World Cup hoping to cause a shock.
The Socceroos were among the last of 32 teams to qualify for the FIFA World Cup Qatar, beating Peru on penalties in the inter-confederation play-off – about 1008 days after opening the qualification campaign with a 3-0 win over Kuwait in September 2019.
It was a campaign that was heavily interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Socceroos playing only four of 20 games at home, and typified by a struggle to score goals against top opposition.
Through the early rounds of qualification, the Socceroos won 11 straight games – the longest winning streak in team history in a single qualifying campaign.
In the next seven games, Australia scored not enough goals, winning once and squandering an opportunity to qualify for the World Cup directly.
In four matches against automatic qualifiers Saudi Arabia and Japan, the Socceroos lost three times and drew once, scoring only one goal.
The inability to score against elite opponents is a problem that has plagued the Socceroos for a generation.
At 2010, 2014 and 2018 World Cups, Australia were knocked out in the group stage each time.
In Qatar, the Socceroos will be relying on Martin Boyle, Mitchell Duke, Awer Mabil and Jamie Maclaren to bring the goals.
The Scottish-based Boyle is Australia’s most direct attacking player and will likely partner veteran Mathew Leckie on the wings of coach Graham Arnold’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
Duke heads to Qatar as one of the first-choice strikers but could face competition from Maclaren, who has scored five goals in four games for Melbourne City this season.
Creativity in midfield is Arnold’s biggest problem ahead of announcing his squad for the World Cup.
First-choice attacking midfielder Ajdin Hrustic is in a race against time to prove his fitness after injuring his ankle playing for Italian club Hellas Verona in late October.
The international career of Tom Rogic, Australia’s most talented playmaker, is in doubt after he withdrew from the squad for the intercontinental play-offs.
If neither are available, Arnold could turn to two teenage sensations in Garang Kuol and Cristian Volpato.
Kuol, 18, will in January join Premier League giants Newcastle United after bursting onto the scene with the A-League’s Central Coast Mariners.
He made his Socceroos debut in a September friendly against New Zealand and is considered Australia’s most promising talent since the golden generation of Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell.
The case for Cristian Volpato to fill the void in midfield is more complicated.
Volpato played his junior international football for Italy but is also eligible to represent Australia.
The 18-year-old has not declared for either nation but bolted into Socceroos World Cup contention when he came off the bench to score and provide an assist in Italian giant Roma’s 3-1 win against Verona.
Behind the attackers is where the Socceroos are mostly settled, with Aaron Mooy set to partner Jackson Irvine at the base of midfield.
They will be flanked by Aziz Behich and Nathaniel Atkinson at left and right back, respectively.
Despite his penalty shootout heroics against Peru in June, goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne could be benched for captain Mat Ryan.
In the middle of the defense, however, there are significant selection problems.
Both Harry Souttar and Trent Sainsbury – Arnold’s first-choice defensive pairing – are under injury clouds.
If either is deemed unfit to play at the World Cup, 30-year-old Bailey Wright and youngster Kye Rowles are the most likely replacements.
Qualifying for a fifth consecutive World Cup after a tumultuous campaign was considered by many in Australia to be a pass mark for the Socceroos.
For Arnold, though, the tournament in Qatar presents an opportunity to cement his legacy as one of Australia’s most successful coaches.
Having won the A-League championship multiple times, the 59-year-old Arnold has managed the Socceroos since 2018 having previously served as an assistant and caretaker.
Drawn in Group D against France, Denmark and Tunisia, the Socceroos will face a tough challenge to equal the nation’s best World Cup result of qualifying for the round of 16, which they achieved in 2006.
If they do progress, Arnold will reportedly trigger an automatic four-year contract extension.
However, a more realistic target for the Socceroos could be to secure a first win at a World Cup since 2010. ■