Only one month to go until June’s three vital World Cup qualifiers for the Socceroos and already my fingernails are down to stubs.
It’s tough to know what we ought to make of Australia’s chances in this group. The top two get a direct place at Brazil 2014. We currently sit in third place, just a point behind Jordan, level with Oman and one ahead of Iraq.
Whether we’re worthy of that spot, higher or lower is open to a debate, which could go on forever.
In many ways, ending up in third at the end of the qualifiers might be the worst possible result as we’ll be forced to endure another three and possibly five months of waiting for the play-offs to run their course (and after experiencing what I like to call “waiting lounge hell” since 26 March, that is not something I want to suffer through again).
When Australia’s group for the final round of qualifying was drawn, many would have penciled in an early booking to Brazil… perhaps even thinking it would be sewn up by now.
Riding on the coattails of Australia’s sublime effort to qualify for Germany 2010, and judging by the reactions of many to our loss to Jordan and draws with Oman, qualification was seen as a fait accompli save for the inevitable slip-ups against Japan.
In many ways, I was such observer; I was wary, having seen what some of the Middle Eastern teams are capable of in past matches, but I thought we’d be able to negotiate our way out of the tricky stage and lock ourselves in with a game or two to spare. In light of what’s happened so far, that looks just about impossible.
Drew away with Oman. Drew at home with Japan. Lost away to Jordan. Won away against Iraq. Drew at home with Oman. Coupled with a couple of surprise results in other games, these have us sitting precariously in third spot. Doomsayers, jaded by our success in Asia since 2007, are wailing. However, the question has to be asked, is all lost?
The answer is a resounding no. Not by a long shot. There are a large number of possibilities which could eventuate (729 to be exact… not including the varying potential impacts of goal difference) and funnily enough I have not found the time to work them all out, however it’s simple to get a rough idea of what needs to be done.
It is almost unthinkable that we could beat Japan, based on current form. But the Socceroos have an excellent recent record against the Samurai Blue and Japan might be panicking a bit after their last-start loss to Jordan, a match they were expected to canter home from with three points and World Cup qualification tucked away.
The odds are still highly in Japan’s favour but beat them and just about anything could happen. Think of the euphoria if that were to eventuate…
Enough of that euphoria. If we did win, that would lift us up into second with two games to go. Another win out of our two games at home to Jordan and Iraq – or even two draws – would get us there regardless of other results.
That is the dream situation to be in. Is it likely? Definitely not. But it is possible and given our history with the Japanese, not out of the question.
More likely is that we draw with Japan, and even more likely is that we lose to them. Either result would mean that we have to win at least one and probably both of the remaining two games to finish in the top two and qualify directly.
A second loss would just about kill us off completely, as would two draws, and even a win and a draw would be tough to rely upon as other results would become critical.
Adding to the difficulty is the sheer unpredictability of this group. Japan are by far and away the best team on paper and on form, but even they aren’t immune to a shock with a seven-goal turnaround resulting in a 2-1 loss to Jordan following the first match between the two teams during which Japan thumped six unanswered goals past the hapless Jordanian defence.
Upsets by other teams against Japan cannot be discounted, especially if they draw with or beat us and qualify early.
The difficulty for the average punters among us is working out who the biggest threat out of Jordan, Oman and Iraq is. One would suggest Jordan given they beat both Australia and Japan and currently occupy second spot.
Unfortunately it’s not as easy as that. Jordan beat Australia who went on to defeat Iraq who then went on to best…Jordan. Perhaps the closeness of these four teams can best be explained by the fact that out of the eight matches between them so far, four have ended up in draws.
And this closeness is what could just get Australia over the line. We are the only one of these four teams who don’t have a negative goal difference.
Jordan, despite their second spot and two massive wins over Australia and Japan, still have a six-goal deficit to overcome…that loss to Japan last year could come back and haunt them. We also have a game in hand over Oman and Jordan, currently the closest to us on the table, and two out of our last three games at home.
This can only be a good thing for the team as they face the likelihood that they will be faced with a do-or-die six-pointer against Jordan on 11 June. Ideally we’ll have shocked Japan and put ourselves in the box seat by then but you never know. Here’s hoping for the best for our Socceroos.
Nothing’s certain in football at the best of times, and in this see-sawing battle for second place and an automatic ticket to Brazil, certainty has just about vanished.