Make no mistake… this is a really important game.
Win it, we tie with the Saudis at the top of the group.
Lose it or draw, we’re back in the pack and struggling to qualify.
So, given all that is riding on this game. And given all the options available to Arnie, who will make his team?
Maty Ryan is just about untouchable at the moment despite his lack of minutes in La Liga. He was excellent in the last few matches, is training at a very high level, and almost certain to be picked. I think the only Australian keeper, on form, arguably able to take his place, is Mitch Langerak who has retired from international football.
Deputies are likely to be unchanged – Vuka and Thomas – although with a match in Australia, Mark Birrighitti is an outside chance.
The candidates are Sainsbury, Souttar, Degenek, Deng, Meredith, Good (although I suspect I’ve forgotten someone).
On the basis of current minutes and form you’d have to go with Sainsbury and Souttar but Degenek, in particular, would be close if fit. Sainsbury had a blinder last match but has a mistake or two in his game. Fortunately he’s fast enough to fix most mistakes. Any combination of these players would do a job but we do need speed – especially if Souttar plays. Harry has his strong points but looks susceptible against zippy forwards.
The candidates are Grant, Karacic, Atkinson, Strain and Behich, Elder, Smith.
On the right, both Grant and Karacic have done well at every opportunity, but in my (not so) humble opinion, Atkinson is the best footballer and will eventually be a lock there. I sincerely doubt he’ll play in this match but I hope he gets a chance shortly. I don’t think Grant did well in the last match but I suspect he was injured – he does have a lot of Brownie points. Karacic has been excellent every chance he’s had. I suspect it’ll be Grant.
On the left, Behich had a nightmare last match but has been very reliable for a long time. Elder has done well for a long time in a strong league so must have claims. Brad Smith seems to be in good form so also has claims. I think it’ll be Behich – if only to say all is forgiven for last time.
Obviously this depends on shape and system, but I’m going to assume Arnie’s usual system of 4,2,3,1. (Even though we should be attacking at home.)
The defensive midfielder candidates are Mooy, Jeggo, Irvine, Metcalfe, Genreau, Dougall and Gianni Stensness.
Given Mooy hasn’t been playing much recently, I wouldn’t expect him to start. I don’t think Irvine went that well against Japan but he is playing regularly at a decent level – as are the others (with the exception of Metcalfe). I think Arnie will start with Irvine and Jeggo on the basis of experience.
Former All-White Stensness is a fantastic player and will soon be pushing for a place. I reckon he’ll be in the squad.
Candidates for attacking midfield include Boyle, Rogic, Mabil, McGree, Ikonimidis, Arzani and Hrustic.
Rogic is unlikely and there’s a Covid doubt over Boyle. Fingers crossed he’s okay and if he is will certainly start on the right. Hrustic will play at 10 with Mabil most likely on the left. If Boyle is out we might see Hrustic on the right with McGree at 10. Mabil can also play 10. Leckie is also a possibility but unlikely given lack of recent match time.
Andrew Nabbout can also play wide but (if selected) I’m including him with the forwards. I’d also love to see Arzani get some minutes.
Candidates include Leckie, McLaren, Nabbout, Duke and potentially Deni Juric (if not injured and accepts the call). There a few others worth looking at (like the Toure brothers and Kusini Yengi) but it’s probably too early for them.
I think Taggart is out, which is a shame as he’s done well recently despite a lack of goals. He’s certainly helped the team through good running off the ball and setting up chances. But his absence opens the door for Duke to start and McLaren to get time off the bench.
Duke has done everything Arnie has asked of him and will be a dangerous presence against the Saudis. He’s a much smarter footballer these days but still has the pace and aggression that made his name as a youngster.
So, the team I think Arnie will go with is:
Grant, Sainsbury, Souttar, Behich
Boyle, Hrustic, Mabil
However, if I was picking the team, I’d go for something more attacking – especially given that the Saudis are notoriously bad travellers and will try to park the bus.
Therefore, I’d go for a 4,3,3 to get as many attackers as possible in and around the box and I’d also be looking for the sort of creativity likely to unlock the green bus door. My team would be:
Atkinson, Sainsbury, Degenek, Behich
Stensness, Hrustic, Jeggo
Boyle Duke Mabil
Subs likely to get minutes would be Leckie, Mooy, McLaren, Arzani, Irvine and McGree.
Obviously this is both an experimental shape with some debutants in a very important match, which could look a tad kamikaze to some. But I’d be betting the Saudis will be playing for a draw which gives us license to attack – meaning we need attackers, and lots of them.
This game is an opportunity for us to send a powerful message to the Group. If we can blow the Saudis off the park it will massively improve our confidence and the Aussie fear factor going forward.
Win this, and also beat China in the UAE next week, then we’re almost there. We’ll obviously face some anti-football in remaining rounds but, if teams aren’t trying to beat us, they’re pretty much laying out the red carpet.
C’mon Arnie! Let’s go for it!
Adrian's books can be purchased at any good bookstore or through ebook alchemy. His first sci-fi novel will be published by Hague Publishing in late 2021.