Ange Postecoglou trimmed down his 30-man squad, scything off the fatty token call-ups, hewing away the gristly knobs, and leaving us with – injured Tom Rogic notwithstanding – the best team the nation can muster right now.
This is the team set to face Iraq and the UAE later this month, both games crunch World Cup qualifiers. This isn’t some show squad; we expect it to shoulder the responsibility of cleanly imprinting fresh, bold footprints on our way to the big tourney, and the match against Iraq – to be played in Tehran – will be a very difficult trip.
In February, Postecoglu said this:
“I don’t think it’s a new faces kind of year… This year will be about hopefully consolidating a group of players and hopefully reaping the rewards of the hard work we’ve done so far,” he said.
“That’s not to exclude anyone breaking through. We’ve still got six months until then. But I wouldn’t expect too many new faces.”
So when Ange revealed his final squad a few days ago, the fact that five uncapped players were left in it was a surprise, to be sure. Rhyan Grant, Danny Vukovic, Riley McGree, Mustafa Amini, and James Jeggo all made the cut, and have been showered in hearty congratulations in the days since.
Grant and Vukovic have been two of A-League-leading Sydney FC’s best players this season, and fully deserve their call-ups. Amini and Jeggo have both made more than 25 appearances for their clubs, in the Danish and Austrian leagues and cups, respectively, and are certainly worth testing out.
McGree is only 18, and has played just over half of Adelaide United’s matches this season. His selection severed the moorings of eyebrows around the country; he is a very handsome prospect, but in a squad already heavily populated with midfielders, one wonders just how much use he will be to the team over the next two competitive matches. Certainly Aaron Mooy, Massimo Luongo, Mile Jedinak, Mark Milligan, and Jackson Irvine would be ahead of McGree in the central midfielder ranks.
Postecoglu also spoke late last year about how players hoping to earn a national call-up must focus on playing regularly.
“The players know the position they’re in and we need our players to be playing regular football,” Postecoglou said.
“It would help more if they were playing regular football, but again I can’t influence that – apart from selection.”
With that in mind, and knowing that national team managers can never please everyone, selecting as they must based on form, playing time, and a decided-upon set of reliable and system-appropriate players, it will be interesting to see whether, for example, Aziz Behich starts over Brad Smith.
Behich has been a permanent fixture at left back for Bursaspor in the Turkish league, playing the full 90 minutes in all but one game – where he was absent through injury – for them this season. Smith – who started the Socceroos’ last qualifier against Thailand – has featured in the Bournemouth starting XI just three times this season and – save for a four game spell where he was injured – has been unused, slouching on the bench for the vast majority of the other fixtures.
If Postecoglou is true to his word, then Behich will start, and so he should. The fact that Grant is the only natural right back in the squad also bolsters hope that a new full back pairing might trot out in Tehran in a week. They have been such troublesome positions for the Socceroos lately, and Grant and Behich might well make them their own.
There is also another aspect of the squad that has caught they eye or, more accurately, agonised the mind: Tomi Juric and Tim Cahill appear to be the only two strikers in the team. A front three of Matt Leckie, Robbie Kruse and Juric is a worryingly goal-shy lot, with just three goals, as a group, for Australia since the beginning of 2016.
The nation is harrowingly short of strikers at the moment, and with only Jamie Maclaren or Alex Brosque excelling in the A-League as local products, this is a painful issue throbbing close to the forefront of the Australian football consciousness. Relying on the midfield to score goals is one thing, but the absence of Rogic makes this a much riskier prospect.
Cahill cannot always provide a telling strike off the bench, and – as much as McGree’s call-up warms the heart – the palpitations currently afflicting Socceroos fans over a goal shortage might be eased had Maclaren, Brosque or even Adam Taggart been taken instead of the Adelaide youngster.
As it stands, Australia are in third place in their Round 3 group. If that position is maintained and not improved upon, then the Roos will miss out on World Cup qualification at the earliest opportunity – only the top two teams automatically qualify, currently Japan and Saudi Arabia – and will have to play through a Fourth Round and a final Playoff Round to qualify, a much more difficult route.
Japan and Saudi Arabia both play Thailand this month – who are bottom of the group – and will expect to pick up three points from those fixtures. Japan also play the UAE – who are behind Australia only on goal-difference – and could do the Socceroos a favour by beating them on the 24th, the day after we play Iraq. It’s all very tight, and the sloppy draw with Thailand last year will look an even worse result if the Socceroos are leap-frogged by the Omar Abdulrahmen-led UAE this month.
Ange’s “no new faces” assertion has already been abandoned, mostly for the better. Whether he keeps to his “playing time” promise is yet to be seen. What is known, and it now looms like a colossal spectre on the horizon, is that these two qualifying matches are critical tests of the Roos’ World Cup ambitions. We’ll know by April whether or not this squad can pass them.