The Socceroos had the chance to scoot nine points clear of Japan in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday night in Saitama.
Australians have every reason to be delighted with the progress of Ange Postecoglou’s Socceroos as they navigated their first phase of qualifiers with a style reminiscent of some of the play we saw under Guus Hiddink.
But as we move into the next phase of qualifiers, Postecoglou’s focus will be on ensuring we have a defence ready to control opponents in transition.
For all the Roos’ swagger over the past two matches against Tajikistan and Jordan – and it was a sight to behold seeing the likes of Aaron Mooy, Robbie Kruse and Tom Rogic together in full flight – the quality of opposition will go up a level in the next phase, where only the top two from each group go directly to Russia.
Take the United Arab Emirates, for example, who could potentially be the third-ranked team in a group also likely to contain either Japan or the Uli Stielike-managed South Korea.
Omar Abdulrahman joined up front by Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil is a potent attacking trio, as we saw at last year’s Asian Cup.
The third-placed teams in each of the two groups are forced into a play-off for the right to face the fourth-placed CONCACAF (South American) side for a spot in Russia – a precarious position Postecoglou will be keen to avoid.
But finishing in the top two won’t be a walk in the park.
With Chinese and Qatari football on the improve, and Saudi Arabia now coached by former Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk, who took the Oranje to the 2010 World Cup final, we’re starting to see a little more consistency and depth across the continent.
Saudi Arabia, for example, has a proud World Cup qualification history, having made four straight from USA 1994 to Germany 2006, but has missed the past two as the likes of Australia, Iran, Japan and South Korea have dominated.
The fact they’ve got van Marwijk, who was criticised for playing a largely physical and reactionary brand of football despite getting the Dutch to final, tells you about their ambition to crack back into the ‘big four’.
Then there is the ambition of the likes of Syria, Thailand and Iraq, who are doing it with home-grown coaches Fajr Ibrahim, Kiatisuk Senamuang and Abdul Ghani Shahad respectively.
That Oman, Jordan, Kuwait and North Korea all missed out on the top 12 tells you of the growing quality as money pours into the development of Asian football and nations start to become smarter and make better managerial appointments.
To that end, the Socceroos need to be switched on defensively against whomever they play, and with such an emphasis on controlling opponents through position and offensive speed, their ability to manage opponents in transition will be a big factor in the next phase.
Postecoglou spoke about this post-game on Tuesday night, saying how delighted he was that the Roos were able to stop Jordan’s counter to Hamza Al-Dardour by getting his defence in contact with defensive midfielder Mark Milligan.
He spoke about the “good distance” between them, meaning he doesn’t want to see defenders isolated in transition. He wants two or three defenders within touching distance as teams try to counter, and he wants them to work together to win it back quickly.
Until Kruse calmed the nerves against Jordan by setting up Tim Cahill for the opener, I was nervous about the ability of Bailey Wright to do the job described above.
This is the type of defending which requires defenders to stay completely switched on and calm, and there were signs in Adelaide last week, against Tajikistan, where Wright was a little over-aggressive one-on-one.
Even on Tuesday, while much was made of the bad tackle on Kruse in the second half, Wright was also at fault for a poor coat-hanger effort.
Postecoglou can’t afford his central defenders to lose their composure and give away free kicks, which the likes of Abdulrahman would relish.
At the moment, with Matthew Spiranovic missing the past two matches due to injury, it seems Wright has the front-running for the left centre-back spot, largely on the basis he is a left-footer and specialist there.
They seem harder to find than right centre-backs, where Postecoglou has the choice between Trent Sainsbury, Alex Wilkinson and Spiranovic.
He seems loath to use either Sainsbury or Wilkinson at left centre-back.
At the successful Asian Cup it was Sainsbury on the right and Spiranovic on the left. At the World Cup it was Wilkinson right and Spiranovic left.
My feeling is that Wright is filling in at the moment while we await the return of Spiranovic, but it would be worth seeing the Wilkinson-Sainsbury partnership.
Elsewhere, I was delighted to see Brad Smith take his opportunities at left back over the past week and he looks the best long-term option of the many we have seen so far under Postecoglou.
Right back remains a headache, and while Ryan McGowan did a good job against Tajikistan, Josh Risdon looked less convincing against Jordan.
If Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy keep up their recent form, playing England in May will provide a much sterner test for the Socceroos’ rearguard, and it will be interesting to see who Postecoglou picks at left centre back and right back.
Come September, when the next phase of qualifiers begins, the hope is he’s found the personnel he is confident can offer something in attack, but also have the smarts to control opponents when we don’t have the ball.