Despite once again not putting in an at all convincing performance, Australia have progressed to the quarterfinals of the AFC U23 Championships after riding a Ramy Najjarine goal to a 1-1 draw with Bahrain.
Following on from a madcap 2-1 win over Thailand, in which the Head Coach Graham Arnold’s side somehow went into halftime level at 1-1 before running over the top of the host nation in the second half, hopes had been high in the Australian camp that the momentum from that game would carry over to the meeting with Al-Ahmar.
Opening fireworks, disappointingly, were not forthcoming.
Instead, the opening stages of the contest were defined by their maddening mundanity as neither side attempted to push the envelope. Instead, both XIs seemed more focused on settling into their self-assigned roles – Australia dominating the ball and Bahrain content to soak up pressure and wait for an opening.
The Olyroos’ first clear chance came in the 25th minute when, springing forward on the counter, Daniel Bouman and Gabriel Cleur combined to create enough room on the right for the former to drive a low cross to the top of the six-yard-box.
Eagerly waiting for it was Al Hassan Toure, with only a desperate lunge from a scrambling defender denying the Adelaide United striker a close-range shot.
The best chance of the first half an hour, however, belonged to the Bahrainis.
Sending a corner into the area in the 29th minute, a failed clearance by the Australians saw the ball fall at the feet of Ahmed Sanad just outside the penalty area.
The ball promptly put into back into the mixer, it was flicked onward and upward by Sayed Ameen and into the bath of Ahmed Bughammar but, fortunately for Australia, his subsequent header that should have given Bahrain the lead was over the bar.
As is wont to happen in football, the Australians, gifted a reprieve, then punished their foes – doing so in a manner that would have been very familiar to fans of Sydney FC.
Getting to a 50/50 contest first, Keanu Baccus – who had up to that point been uninspiring – knocked a pass forward and to the feet of Reno Piscopo.
Turning his body and advancing goalward, the Wellington Phoenix attacker then bucked conservative play that had characterised the Olyroos game to that point when he – Miloš Ninković style – threaded an inch-perfect pass between a sea of Bahraini shirts and into the path of Najjarine, who promptly collected and slid an effort home.
Yet Australia was unable to hold their lead.
Already fortunate to escape when a close-range header from Mohamed Abdulrahman was denied by Glover in the first minute of first-half stoppage time, a calamitous error from the back four after they stopped awaiting an offside call and, when none was forthcoming, forced Tass Mourdoukoutas to concede a needless and dangerously placed foul occurred deep into extras.
Stepping up to take the set-piece, Mohamed Marhoon curled a low, swinging effort around the Australian wall and beat an out-of-position Glover to deservedly make the scoreline 1-1.
Getting on the end of a ball sliced through the defence by Najjarine, Bouman attempted to drag a ball back across the face of goal and into the path of Toure in the 59th minute, only for the defence to once again clear the danger.
Duelling long-range efforts from both sides followed before a free-kick won in a dangerous area by Najjarine was sent over the bar by Piscopo in the 67th.
But the definite trend of the second half was Bahrain’s dogged determination to find a winner that would keep their dreams of Olympic Qualification alive.
Able to absorb the majority of Australia’s forward attacks with relative ease, Al-Ahmar was clearly the most threatening side in the second half.
They should have taken the lead in the 85th minute when a free-kick floated into the area by Marhoon dropped into the path of both Hamad Al-Shamsan and Ameen on the edge of the six-yard box but, somehow neither were able to direct it onwards.
Australia threatened late when a long-range shot from Nicholas D’Agostino forced a diving save from Ammar Jaafar Ahmed in the 94th minute but, somehow, he put a headed effort from the subsequent short-corner routine wide of the goal with the last touch of the game.
With Jaroensak Wonggorn’s sixth-minute penalty cancelled out by Mohammad Qasem’s 49th minute leveller, the point earned against Bahrain is enough to secure the Olyroos top place in Group A and progression to the quarterfinals of the AFC U23 Championships.
It’s just the second time that Australia’s U23s have reached this stage of the Asian Championships, last occurring back in Oman back in 2013.
On that occasion, in what was Australia’s first crack at an AFC U23 Championship, a side featuring the likes of Curtis Good, Josh Brilliante and Adam Taggart reached the quarterfinals before being knocked out by Saudi Arabia.
Ominously, a strong Saudi side could once again be waiting for Australia in this Saturday’s game, with Head Coach Saad Al-Shehri’s team one of three that could still finish in second place in Group B to set up a meeting with the Olyroos following the conclusion of their group games.
The Green Falcons will meet top-of-the group Syria in one of two fixtures to be played tomorrow night, with the winner guaranteed to top the group and set up a clash with Thailand.
Meeting winless Japan in the other game, Qatar will need to hope that they do enough to get the three points and that the Saudi Arabia vs Syria game produces a winner if they are to progress.
Still work to be done for the Olyroos
Progression may have been secured on Wednesday morning but the performance, once again, showed significant room for improvement.
Defensively, Australia was caught wanting on numerous occasions against their Middle Eastern foes; lapses in concentration gifting Bahrain chances through Bughammar and Abdulrahman as well as the free-kick that led to the excellent Marhoon’s goal.
As has so often been the case for Australian sides in Asia, the Olyroos ability to hold out against an opposition seizing on any turnover and breaking quickly was frequently challenged – Bahrain looking capable of scoring almost every time they seized on an all-too-frequent sloppy pass or haphazard from the Australians.
In particular, the play of holding midfielder Baccus left a lot to be desired.
Reportedly slapped with a $1m price-tag by Western Sydney Wanderers, the 21-year-old provided little in the way of attacking verve on Wednesday and was often at fault for cheap turnovers that allowed Bahrain to break forward.
Perhaps only playing because of a rolled ankle to Denis Genreau, who will have scans later today to determine the severity of the training ground injury, Baccus did little to take advantage of the golden opportunity he had been afforded to lay down a marker and make himself an indispensable part of the first XI.
Instead, he should face a battle to retain his place.
Of course, his actions didn’t occur in a vacuum and the Australian side as a whole will need major to make major improvements to both the ability to retain the ball moving forward and maintain cohesiveness in the face of a rapid break should they wish to book their tickets to Tokyo.
Going forward, the Australians forward play wasn’t as calamitous so much as… dour.
Often content to simply monopolise possession and pass the ball around their opponents rather than try to find a way through them, Australia ended the first half winning the possession battle 62% to 38% and out-passing them 282 to 170.
However, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Australia were unable to turn this control of the ball into the consistent creation of clear chances to score as Bahrain outshot the side in green and gold seven to five and led in the shots-on-target count three to two.
The stats at full-time didn’t look much better.
While possession remained the same – 62% to 38% - Bahrain was still able to maintain their advantage in the shot count and finish with 13 (with five on target) compared to Australia’s 11 (with four on target).
It's seemingly a constant battle for Australian sides but, with the likes of Piscopo, Najjarine, Jacob Italiano and Genreau at their disposal, more penetration should be the goal going forward.
Piscopo shows his class again
Having provided the pass that set up D’Agostino’s opener against the Thais two days prior, it was Piscopo's willingness to take a risk and play the aggressive rather than easy pass that set up a goal for the Olyroos once again when he played through Najjarine.
This, of course, is following on from the Olyroos opening fixture against Iraq in which he scored one of the finest free kicks ever produced by an Australian player – junior international or otherwise – to get his team on the board.
Whereas much of the Olyroos' movement with the ball on Wednesday morning was conservative in nature - played around the Bahrainis rather than through them - the ‘Nix playmaker took it upon himself time and time again to try to play through the lines of the opposition or look to take his man on.
And while his impact, much like the rest of his teammates, faded as the second half wore on, Piscopo was a refreshing dash of colour in an otherwise beige attack – especially prior to Najjarine growing into the contest.
The 21-year-old has flourished since he made the move to Ufuk Talay’s Wellington at the beginning of the 2019/20 season, capping off his strong first months by being named the A-League Young Player of the Year nominee for December
A report in The Herald Sun pre-tournament revealed that Arnold was holding up a potential place in the Socceroos squad at the Copa America as a carrot for his squad at the AFC U23 Championships, and no player has done more to earn that reward than Piscopo.