Australia’s World Cup future out of their hands

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By Evan Morgan Grahame, Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    Japan’s national anthem, much more lilting and beguiling than expected, conjured up serene images, a lotus flower falling softly onto the glassy surface of some quiet, azure pond.

    It was an ethereal way to begin an evening with such tangible rewards, and it belied the demeanour of the opening throes of the contest that followed.

    The match began with three unsuccessful instances of Australia attempting to pass out from the back.

    The ferocity with which the Japanese began the game, closing down the Australian back three ravenously, teared at the already frayed nerves.

    The home side, in spite of their under-strength starting XI, were playing with a fiery intensity, and clearly had what was at stake firmly in mind.

    After five minutes, typically, it was Mark Milligan who made a pass that signalled Australia’s intention to hold strong against the early Japanese flurry, calmly threading a pass to a teammate through three Japanese midfielders, while under heavy pressure. Milligan captained the team, and how lovely it was that an A-League player did so, in such a crunch tie.

    The stadium was a vast, shimmering mass of partisan bodies and voices, as intimidating an assembly as could have been expected.

    The opening 20 minutes were largely made up of dragging portions of Japanese pressure, punctuated occasionally by some promising Australian raids, with Mass Luongo in particular responsible for some delightful, unlikely passes, including two highly effective backheels.

    It was odd; Japan’s swarming of the defence suddenly stopped about half an hour in, and Australia were allowed to make progress up past the halfway line unmolested, with at least eight Japanese players retreating in purposefully constructed banks of four into a defensive arrangement.

    Jackson Irvine, known more as a ball-carrier than a ball-player, was compelled to adopt the latter role, surrounded as he was on halfway by handsome parcels of space.

    Trent Sainsbury stepped forward, gleefully raking some long passes obliquely across the pitch. The contest had progressed into the more settled period, as the teams cautiously looked to pick their way through.

    Clear chances were rare, until Brad Smith, a player whose presence in the starting XI is entirely unjustified, allowed Takuma Asano to run unmarked onto a clipped cross from the left flank.

    The ball curled down onto the Japanese player’s boot, and he caressed the ball past Mat Ryan. Smith had emerged as a weak point defensively in the first half, with the Japanese finding joy down his flank.

    Takuma Asano Japan Football 2017

    (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)

    It was a bad goal to concede, piercing through what had otherwise been a tightly, conservatively fought match, a puncture torn open five minutes before half-time.

    The first half ended with Australia having enjoyed 58 per cent of possession, and with nothing to show for it, save for a deflected Matt Leckie shot that struck the post.

    The replays of the Japanese goal were even more indicting of Smith; he was not caught by surprise by the cross, or by the goalscorer’s run, waving a limp hand at Asano as he raced past him. It was a damning moment of laziness, one that cost his country dearly.

    Robbie Kruse began the match up front, in place of the injured Tomi Juric; Kruse played as a right back in the Confederations Cup, as telling an insight as any into how elastic Ange Postecoglu’s definitions of his players can be.

    Kruse is not a bad choice as a striker, but in this match, where – following their opening flurry – the Japanese eased back into their own half, content to allow Australia the ball, Kruse’s style of darting in behind or drifting out to the wings was not the focal point Australia needed in the final third.

    Juric – like Tim Cahill – is a powerful striker, and his back-to-goal play can sink a potent stake into the middle of the attack, holding up the ball, bringing Troisi, Rogic, Irvine and the other runners into play. It was a problem to ponder over the halftime break.

    The second began as an echo of the first, with Japan pressing hard and forcing the Australian defence into some wayward passes. Japan maintained the pressure, with Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa sitting contentedly on the bench.

    The Socceroos were forced to withstand a torrid 15 minute period, with Japan threatening in a variety of ways; they passed patiently, and broke suddenly, applying nerve-shredding pressure with both methods.

    It was clear Australia were losing the toe-to-toe battle in midfield; the Japanese just had more zip and precision. Tomi Juric was brought on for James Troisi, a much needed physical presence. Kruse was moved back into the winger’s position to accommodate.

    The Japanese did not relent, no doubt sensing the sweet scent of qualification in their nostrils.

    Another difficult ten minutes went by, and then Tim Cahill was prepared. A stirring flutter rippled through Australian hearts, as the home crowd muttered and murmured at the sight of the Roos’ record goalscorer bouncing on the touchline.

    Australia suddenly fashioned a fine chance, Juric sending a skidding cross straight up into the air, shooting while tumbling over, right in front of goal. A flicker of life, perhaps.

    Australia’s urgency was visible, and not without consequence; a Japanese break ended with Trent Sainsbury clearing off the line, miraculously. Japan were very deep now, looking to break prudently, and at speed.

    And then the clincher came, as yet another defensive turnover, this time from Jackson Irvine, led to a mad scramble, with Luongo and Milligan both lunging in vain to regather possession.

    Yosuke Ideguchi, just 21, scampered away with the ball slaloming across from left to right, just outside the box. He struck an unstoppable shot into the far corner.

    Finally, a defensive turnover, spawned by Australia’s reckless short passing out of defence, was punished. Cahill cursed bitterly. Other Roos slammed their fists against the turf; it was a hammer blow.

    Australia had five minutes remaining. Mustafa Amini was sent on, perhaps to salvage a scrap of goal-difference, which all of a sudden seemed much more important, having been reduced by two.

    The minutes eked away, as Japanese hearts rose. The match descended into wild helter-skelter, with Australia throwing themselves desperately into 50-50 challenges, smashing passes to one another, lurching and lunging. Time trickled away, and disappointment set in.

    Brad Smith Australia Football Socceroos 2017

    (AAP Image/Matt Roberts)

    Japanese football has been comfortably ahead of Australian football for at least the last decade. Australia’s general paucity of quality across the park, comparatively speaking, was exposed in this match.

    Jackson Irvine described the “raw disappointment” after the final whistle. When a 0-0 draw would have been so valuable, it might have been smart of Postecoglu to act more cautiously, to play defensive-minded wing-backs, or to tell Ryan and his defence to clear their lines a little more often, instead of passing short.

    But no, this is how Postecoglu’s Roos play, and this is how they lost in Saitama. In the face of superior opposition, Australia’s ambition – and their manager’s dedication to his instincts – was brutally and comprehensively punished.

    Australia now need to rack up a mighty scoreline against Thailand in Melbourne, and hope Japan remain invigorated enough to beat or draw with Saudi Arabia.

    Evan Morgan Grahame
    Evan Morgan Grahame

    Evan Morgan Grahame is a Melbourne-based journalist. Gleaning what he could from his brief career as a painter, the canvas of the football pitch is now his subject of contemplation, with the beautiful game sketching new, intriguing compositions every week. He has been one of The Roar's Expert columnists since 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_M_G.

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    The Crowd Says (36)

    • September 1st 2017 @ 8:10am
      chris said | September 1st 2017 @ 8:10am | ! Report

      To be honest both teams were ordinary. Not sure if it was the pressure of the game, but there was very little in the way of quality on display.
      I really don’t know where to for our boys from here. We play one good game and then 3 ordinary ones. Our passing is woeful coming out of the back. And Matt Ryans distribution was just plain dumb at times. Why not knock it long sometimes to keep the opposition pressing players guessing? It was just amateurish at times the way the ball was chipped 30 meters in our back third from Ryan. I lost count how many second (and first!) balls we lost from the keepers “distribution”.

      • September 1st 2017 @ 9:52am
        Caltex TEN & SBS support Australian Football said | September 1st 2017 @ 9:52am | ! Report

        Ryan’s distribution normally very good, but I agree last night he was very poor with it.

        • September 1st 2017 @ 10:17am
          Brian said | September 1st 2017 @ 10:17am | ! Report

          But is Ryan under instruction from his coach that he should always look to play out rather then go long. Seems like the Japanese knew this as well

        • September 1st 2017 @ 10:21am
          chris said | September 1st 2017 @ 10:21am | ! Report

          Cal Im not blaming Ryan. I doubt there is a keeper in the world who could have distributed any better than Ryan last night. Its the fact that he (under orders?) continually tried to play players in the back third who were heavily marked by pressing opposition. I get the impression our national team are sent out to play one way and one way only. Surely change it up when its not working? The second goal came from the same old same old losing of the ball in a key area. ffs

          • September 1st 2017 @ 10:48am
            Caltex TEN & SBS support Australian Football said | September 1st 2017 @ 10:48am | ! Report

            Ryan, is the best keeper we have, but some of those lofted 30 metre kicks were begging to be cut off and as you rightly pointed out they were.

            However, I believe we must persist with playing out from the back, but let’s not be silly about it, when it’s not on, we need to mix it up occasionally and hoof it up field to keep them guessing.

            The Samurai Blue, did their home work on us and their 4-1-4-1 system kept us under pressure, pressing us all over the park.

    • September 1st 2017 @ 9:12am
      Torchbearer said | September 1st 2017 @ 9:12am | ! Report

      Well I think we can see the Saudis winning at home, why would the Japanese even bother now they have qualified. So if the Saudis win by 2, we will need to win 5-0 to get ahead in goal difference on Tuesday.
      Diabolical.

      • September 2nd 2017 @ 5:26pm
        holly said | September 2nd 2017 @ 5:26pm | ! Report

        Should we win 4-0 (please, oh please) the Saudis will need to score 3 goals (and win by at least a 2 goal margin) to overtake us. Japan don’t often concede 3 in Asia.

    • Roar Rookie

      September 1st 2017 @ 9:23am
      Grobbelaar said | September 1st 2017 @ 9:23am | ! Report

      I don’t entirely agree that WCQ is completely out of our hands now, dependent on other results.

      We are equal 2nd with the Saudis, who have a goal difference advantage of two and have also scored two more goals than us.

      The Saudis host Japan and we host Thailand in the final game.

      Many are supposing that given Japan has qualified, the Saudis are likely to win. That remains to be seen. Certainly if the Saudis can only manage a draw then we will jump them.

      The Thais are yet to win a game in this qualifcation series, and twice have lost away 4-0. We are definitely capable of getting a similar scoreline.

      If the Saudis can only manage a win by a goal, we would jump them with a 4-0 scoreline.

      • September 1st 2017 @ 9:49am
        Caltex TEN & SBS support Australian Football said | September 1st 2017 @ 9:49am | ! Report

        If Japan do lose to the Saudis, it will only be by a goal. And I’m quite confident we will keep a clean sheet against the Thias and put at least four past them playing at AAMI in Melbourne.

        • September 1st 2017 @ 10:19am
          Brian said | September 1st 2017 @ 10:19am | ! Report

          Its totally in our hands, indeed imagone it being the other way with us hosting Japan and Thailand going to Jeddah, we would all be expecting the Thai’s to lose 5-0 – and so they should on a cold Melbourne night.

    • September 1st 2017 @ 9:39am
      Carltonian said | September 1st 2017 @ 9:39am | ! Report

      Will be a real disaster for Australia’s soccer development if they don’t qualify. There is 30 odd million bucks from FIFA then all the sponsorships that come with it.

      All discussion about A-League expansion and the ridiculous 2nd division talk will dissipate. Resources will certainly be very, very stretched. It will be a case of just trying to hold onto the next qualification period and making the best of the Asian Cup.

      I am trying not to think about the potential fall out.

      We could be going back to the good old fashioned, traditional, Socceroos white knuckle qualification ride through the four corners of the globe. Uzbekistan then somewhere in Latin America. Not sure my heart will hold out if we are going the play off safari route again. The Uruguay one almost finished me off the last time.

    • September 1st 2017 @ 9:42am
      mattq said | September 1st 2017 @ 9:42am | ! Report

      Mooy should be back so that should see Rogic dropped. Kruse has to either play wing or be dropped for Cahil or Juric. Luongo was the only shining light last night I thought.

      • September 1st 2017 @ 9:55am
        Caltex TEN & SBS support Australian Football said | September 1st 2017 @ 9:55am | ! Report

        Kruse has to be dropped he has lost a lot of confidence and can’t attack the ball like he use to do.

        • September 2nd 2017 @ 6:41pm
          LuckyEddie said | September 2nd 2017 @ 6:41pm | ! Report

          Kruse drops every time a defender touches him.

      • Roar Rookie

        September 1st 2017 @ 12:29pm
        Real Mister Football said | September 1st 2017 @ 12:29pm | ! Report

        Yeah, they’ll drop Rogic and leave Kruse in. If that’s the case then imposter-coglou should be sacked pre game. Kruse is a complete struggler, no two ways about it. Start Gersbach or another hungry kid….anyone but Kroooooose.

    • September 1st 2017 @ 9:49am
      Torchbearer said | September 1st 2017 @ 9:49am | ! Report

      Not entirely out of our hands, but who would want to face a must win 4-0 or 5-0 match against a team we drew with last time?

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