Australia’s World Cup future out of their hands

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By , 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.