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The Socceroos are set for their biggest challenge yet on the road to the World Cup, with the AFC’s third round of the playoffs set to begin next month.
Australia were perfect in the previous round, winning all eight matches to dominate their group.
However, the competition is now upping a notch with the Australians drawn in Group B against some of Asia’s top teams including Japan, Saudi Arabia, China, Oman and Vietnam.
After taking charge of Australia’s Olympic campaign in Tokyo, Graham Arnold returns to Socceroos and hopes some of his young Olyroos stars can strengthen themselves and contribute to the senior national team as they prepare for the qualification for the World Cup.
Arnold will have his work cut out for him over the next six months as he tries to guide Australia to their fifth consecutive FIFA World Cup.
the chaos of COVID
The Socceroos’ chances of playing their home games in Australia were always going to be a complicated situation due to the strict border restrictions below.
Australia was due to host China at Bankwest Stadium in Sydney on September 2, but that game will now be held abroad, most likely in the Middle East, after Football Australia’s negotiations with the federal government were not able to negotiate quarantine exemptions.
Two more home games are scheduled for 2021 – against Oman in October and Saudi Arabia in November – which will likely also take place off the Australian coast.
To prevent the Socceroos from playing at neutral venues, Football Australia had discussed with the government possible quarantine exemptions for the two teams to train and stay in bubbles as well as other safety measures.
However, with these talks essentially stalled, the Socceroos will need to be prepared for the possibility that the road to the World Cup will no longer include home games.
The Socceroos have an enviable record in front of their own fans, having lost only once in qualifying matches in Australia since 2006.
Their last game in Australia was a victory against Nepal in October 2019.
You might be excused for feeling deja vu watching Group B rivals the Socceroos enter the AFC’s third round of World Cup qualifying in Qatar.
Australia will once again take on their Japanese rivals, making it the fourth time the two nations have met in World Cup qualifying, while they have also been paired with opponent Saudi Arabia. qualification in 2018.
In qualifying for Russia 2018, the Socceroos were forced to advance through a tough play-off, having finished third behind Japan and Saudi Arabia.
It meant a two-way round-trip series against Syria and Honduras for the Australians, who did enough to book their ticket to Russia.
This time around, Arnold will be determined to secure his ticket to Qatar without having to go through the play-offs, which means a place in the top two of the group is vital.
Japan and Saudi Arabia remain two of the best teams in the Asian confederation and won’t make things any easier for Arnold and the Socceroos.
“Both groups are strong, but all we can do is focus on ourselves. ..and make sure we prepare for who we play and every time we play, ”Socceroos coach Arnold said after the draw was announced last month.
“Obviously when you get to that stage of the World Cup qualifiers every game will be tough, but the fact that we have a mix of countries from the Middle East, as well as countries from East Asia, is formidable.
“We’ve been to these places before, so we don’t have any surprises in store. Overall I think this is a very good draw for us.
In the second round of qualifying, Japan were the only nation other than Australia to finish with a flawless record of eight wins in as many matches.
Samurai Blue scored an incredible 46 goals and conceded just two to climb to the top of the group.
Saudi Arabia also led their group with six wins, but lost points in the draws against Yemen and Palestine.
The Australians will also need to be at their best against fellow Group B opponents Oman, China and Vietnam, with all three teams capable of causing a shock or two.
Graham Arnold has trusted the next generation of Socceroos stars and believes they could make a difference in this final World Cup qualifying leg.
So much so that he raised his hand to take charge of the Olyroos’ Olympic campaign for Tokyo in the hopes that it would help bridge the gap between the Socceroos and the next batch of rising stars.
“I decided to take on the Olympic team when it wasn’t my job and honestly I’m here as a volunteer,” said Arnold.
“I’m here to help the kids and the game. I really believe the strength of the Socceroos is in the juniors… after two years of hard work on this Olympic team, we’re getting there.
“When I took that over I thought back to the good old days and that ‘golden generation’ everyone wants to talk about was (because) they had a coach for both teams and that was Eddie Thomson .
“He coached the Socceroos and the Olyroos and built the same culture within both teams, the same message. When the young kids came to play for the Socceroos, they didn’t feel inferior at all, they knew they were belonged.
“So after these Olympics I see that five or six players will join the Socceroos.”
A rising star who has already played a vital role for the Socceroos is defenseman Harry Souttar.
The center-back has delivered at both ends of the pitch for the national team, with his imposing size and physique creating many headaches for the opposition.
Playing for Stoke City in the Premier League, the 22-year-old could be teamed up with Trent Sainsbury amid Australia’s defense throughout the next round of qualifying.
Bringing young players such as Souttar into the starting lineup will be key to Australia’s success as the team’s veterans reach the end of their careers.
Upcoming Socceroos World Cup qualifiers
Australia vs. China
September 2 – Location: to be confirmed
Vietnam vs. Australia
September 7 – Location: to be confirmed
Australia v Oman
October 7 – Location: YBC
Japan vs. Australia
October 12 – Location: to be confirmed
Australia vs. Saudi Arabia
November 11 – Location: to be confirmed
China vs. Australia
November 16 – Location: to be confirmed
Australia vs. Vietnam
January 27 – Location: to be confirmed
Oman vs. Australia
February 1 – Location: to be confirmed
Australia vs. Japan
March 24 – Location: to be confirmed
Saudi Arabia vs. Australia
March 29 – Location: to be confirmed