So Australia are through to the knockout rounds, and after a full day of recovering my shattered nerves, I’m finally able to write about it.
I just recently got out of hospital so I could have done without that…the icy grip on my heart for 90 minutes of existential angst. How on earth do we enjoy games like that with figurative death hanging over us every Damoclean moment?
We went into this game on a wave of confidence after a stylish and comprehensive win against Palestine. In particular, the whole country was excited by the performances of Chris Ikonimidis and Awer Mabil, who look like potential superstars of the future. MacLaren had his first goal and Giannou was keeping him honest – all we needed was for the likes of Tom Rogic to really step forward and do for Australia what he’s so often done for Celtic.
Step forward he did – in spades. He did pretty well against Palestine but his game against Syria was outstanding. I’ll come back to that.
The fans may have been focussed on the final third, but the coach was focussed on the back. Who would replace Sainsbury?
I would have gone the straight swap with Matt Jurman, but Arnie pushed Mark Milligan back with Milos Degenek, and replaced him with Mass Luongo. Fair enough in theory but Milligan has been excellent in the last two games and his presence at the front of the defence was not replicated by Luongo and Irvine.
Even worse, Millsie himself had a bit of a ‘mare at centre back. It’s a long time since I’ve seen him so tentative and error prone. His understanding with Degenek in the first half was all over the shop.
In fact, the whole back four was not at all the solid wall we saw against Palestine. Rhyan Grant was okay, but the other three were sluggish. Sainsbury can’t come back quick enough and Milligan needs to resume his conducting duties from the middle of the park.
Of course, it does need to be emphasised that Syria really pushed us – as you would expect. They had both the current tournament to play for and the last one to avenge. They were always going to be tough and I think we allowed them to steamroll us at times. Fortunately we held out and the front four eventually played their part.
Awer Mabil’s goal in the 41st minute was a cracker – not just the shot but also the way he made it. He is going to be a huge player for Australia over the next few years. To think we still have Arzani, Leckie, Nabbout (who re-injured his groin), Boyle and the maestro Aaron Mooy to come back for the World Cup Qualifiers. How will Arnie get them all into the team (with also Rogic, Ikonimidis, MacLaren and Giannou)? Competition will be fierce.
Chris Ikonimidis, once again, was brilliant. Like Mabil, he’s come from nowhere to really excite the fans for the future, but the real hero yesterday was Tom Rogic. What a game he had! Pulling the strings all over the park – setting up Ikonimidis’ goal with the sweetest of angled crosses and then smashing in the winner from 20 metres.
I worry about Rogic’s ongoing injury concerns but maybe he’s about to finally become the Socceroos legend he’s always threatened to be.
It wasn’t a polished performance, by either team, but the match was absolutely riveting – and to think I was tempted to just go to bed and record it.
One or two side issues – regular readers of my work will recall that I am a frequent critic of commentators not knowing the handball rule, and this time we were treated to Sash Ognanovski’s declaration that the ball bouncing weirdly and hitting the underside of Mark Milligan’s already raised arm was a clear penalty.
Sorry Og, but the rule states that a handball has to be intentional. Milligan wasn’t even looking at the ball and didn’t move his arm towards it. Play on, was the correct decision, but such was the (understandable) lamentation from the opposition that you have to wonder whether it played a part in the ref’s appalling decision a short while later to give a penalty when Omar Al Soba tripped over his own feet.
Anyway, we held on, and my pulse eventually slowed about nine hours later.
You have to feel very sorry for Syria – a country that has been smashed from pillar to post for the last ten years. They deserve some success but, all things considered, I’d rather it not be against us.
Also, after watching that performance, neither Japan nor Uzbekistan will be trembling, but the Socceroos always lift against the better teams so I know we’ll be competitive – even without Nabbout (and maybe Leckie).
Socceroos to go deep!
Adrian’s latest book The Fighting Man is in the shops right now or available through Booktopia. Adrian also wrote Mr Cleansheets.