Australia beat Thailand, but still no closer to World Cup qualification

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By , Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    Unlike the Melbourne troposphere, Ange Postecoglou was under heavy pressure.

    As frigid rain pelted the Victorian capital, the national manager was no doubt feeling the heat; his team needed a big win over Thailand to be assured of automatic qualification.

    Saudi Arabia were playing in Jeddah at 3am (AEDT), and to leave his team’s chances hanging by a narrow win or – heaven forbid – a draw, would make for a sleepless night.

    A win over Thailand by less than two goals would mean any kind of Saudi victory over an already qualified Japan would ensure a third-placed playoff for Australia.

    The first half was 45 minutes of torture, as Australian attacks were brought billowing up the pitch, sweeping toward a footballing crescendo, every angel trumpet and demon trombone building to a divine acme, only to stop jarringly at the point of climax.

    Twice Australia hit the post. A shot was cleared off the line. Another was deflected away by a flying Thai limb, dangling fortuitously in exactly the right parcel of air at exactly the right millisecond.

    The shot count, at halftime, read 14-3 in Australia’s favour. The possession, 74 to 26 per cent, in Australia’s favour.

    The home team, bayed on by a sopping, shivering crowd, had complete control of the game. But thanks to bad finishing and bad luck, they couldn’t score.

    The Socceroos, in a distinctly attack-minded line-up, complete with six personnel changes, were much more fluent – albeit against highly inferior opposition – than they had been in Saitama. Tim Cahill, stationed just behind Tomi Juric and in front of Tom Rogic, and Mark Milligan, moved from the defence into a role that lingered between the back three and the midfield, functioned as key linking players.

    The isolation Robbie Kruse suffered against Japan was not present, and Rogic, aided by Cahill’s link-up play and Aaron Mooy’s intelligent distribution, was blazingly prominent. The passing errors that plagued the defence against Japan were but sour memories, with Milligan’s recessed presence offering a vital pressure release.

    It was, on the part of coach Postecoglou, an expertly theorised and sensibly implemented tactical reshuffle.

    And yet it bore no fruit, even as the game edged out towards the hour mark, by which time Australia had survived a Thai penalty appeal that should really have been given. Australia’s previous high in World Cup qualifying, as far as shots registered in a match goes, was eclipsed before Cahill was substituted for Kruse in the 56th minute.

    The demeanour of the game had not changed; Australia were still passing their way up to the Thai penalty area at will, only to find themselves stifled or thwarted at the critical shooting moment.

    Sinthaweechai Hathairattanakool, the second-choice Thai keeper, was repelling every shot that wasn’t blocked by a teammate or hit waywardly. Chanathip Songkrasin, Thailand’s best player, was a quicksilver threat on every counter attack. The squeals of Thai supporters pierced through the rumbling groans of the Australia faithful; the atmosphere was tense.

    Alex Gersbach was substituted, replaced by James Troisi, an act emblematic of Australia’s desperation. That desperation was further frayed when Rogic hit the post again, somehow.

    Then Mooy whipped in a swooping cross, which was met by Juric charging in like a battering ram. His glanced header shattered the wretched parity, and Australia took the lead. The roars of relief reverberated around the nation. Jamie Maclaren was brought on to consolidate things further; more goals were still needed. Postecoglou was, at that point, fielding more natural attackers than he was any other type of player.

    A header from Trent Sainsbury was cleared off the line, and Rogic forced another fine save from Hathairattanakool. Mat Ryan tempered the situation by gifting the Thai attackers the ball straight from a short goal-kick, an utterly inexplicable error that fortunately went unpunished.

    The next minute, an agonising game of pinball occurred in the Thai goalmouth, with Socceroos flying in to try and force the ball over the line, to no avail. This was strikingly open football, with the shortcomings of the Thai team dovetailing with Australia’s reckless thirst for another goal.

    That recklessness was then brutally punished. With nine minutes to go, the Thais sauntered up the left flank, with Australia beleaguered and panting in pursuit. Milligan was, suddenly, outnumbered, victim of a Thai overlap. Perapat Notechaiya, free in the box, crossed for Pokkhao Anan, who struck a shot onto the underside of Ryan’s crossbar and in. It was unstoppable. A single moment of lurching over-extension was exposed, and suddenly the outlook was as bleak as the Melbourne skyline.

    Australia pushed forward again, with simply a win now top of the agenda, never mind the scoreline. A series of corners, won by Mooy, tallied up, and from the final one Mathew Leckie speared the ball home through a mass of bodies. Australia took the lead again, and AAMI Park sighed again.

    There was still, though, the feeling that a victory by a single goal margin would not be satisfactory.

    Australia poured forward, with Troisi, Mooy and Juric all shooting powerfully from distance. Both teams’ passing was ragged, the players stumbling through fatigue. Milligan was stained in mud. Leckie could barely pass the ball. The referee blew the final whistle, the Roos 2-1 winners.

    This was not the emphatic scoreline Australia needed, and the Saudis – playing a few hours later – now knew that any kind of win would send them through to the World Cup automatically.

    Luck was not on Australia’s side, as on another night any of the Socceroos’ 45 – yes, that’s forty-five – shots might have made it 4 or 5-0. Postecoglou and his team, who should never really have been in a position of such precariousness, were forced to wait until the wee hours of Wednesday morning to find out their qualification fate.

    Ed: Saudi Arabia’s 1-0 win over Japan this morning means both teams automatically qualified, while the Socceroos continue on to a two-leg, home-and-away qualifying route through Asia and North or Central America.