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In a rollicking match, Australia outscored Syria, confirming their progress into the knockout phase of the Asian Cup.
3-2 it ended and, as much as the three goals-for will bolster confidence in the offensive capabilities of this current arrangement of Socceroos, the two goals-against offered a sobering reminder that even a rudimentary, cross-heavy opponent can rattle the Australian defence, for whom lapses remain an issue.
The problem of Trent Sainsbury’s suspension was solved in the manner expected, with Mark Milligan sliding back into central defence, and Massimo Luongo coming into the midfield.
Syrian striker Omar Al Somah’s height, as matched up with Milligan, was a valid concern, but the passing Sainsbury offers is more adequately replaced by Milligan than Matt Jurman.
Syria won a corner early and attacked with all the hunger a team in their desperate position should be expected to; Syria had a huge swathe of supporters in the Al Ain stadium, and how they were yearning for a good Syrian performance, with their team having been poor against both Palestine and Jordan.
Tom Rogic was also looking hungry for Australia, and nice soft feet allowed the Roos almost to escape on the counter.
His final pass to Chris Ikonomidis was just a little heavy. With Syria pushing so hard, rushing to regain the ball after losing it in the Australian defensive third, counter-attacking opportunities were there, if we had ball-players nimble and skilled enough to play through pressure.
Rogic is one of our most nimble, our most skilled.
Although, in the above sequence above, the pass was off, it’s that first and second touch Rogic makes that separates him from so many other Australian players; those touches, if attempted by anyone else, might clank horribly off the feet.
Syria spent the opening 15 minutes dominating the chances. Al Somah sent a towering header over the bar; winger Omar Khrbin sent an angled shot wide, after an Australian mistake gifted him the ball in shooting range.
Al Somah then revealed the full extent of his might, controlling a high ball, with Socceroo tacklers bouncing off him like eager nephews being manhandled by a slightly too vigorous uncle, tinny in hand, at the family picnic kick-around.
Jamie Maclaren missed a golden chance to put his country in front, heading Rhyan Grant’s fine cross wide.
That chance interrupted a series of Syrian chances, all as good as the solitary reply the Roos managed. If not quite wilting, Australia were certainly trembling under this Syrian pressure, white-knuckled and teeth gritted.
Grant, gifted the starting right back spot by Josh Risdon’s unfortunate injury, has not looked like a stand-in. His positioning – knowing when to stay forward, and when to retreat into the more traditional defensive rest position – is exemplary.
Here, you can see him bide his time up the field, aware of his team’s dominance of numbers at the back, knowing the pressure he applies simply being higher up the park is an asset that can be suddenly utilised.
Luongo, after a period of rumination, eventually takes advantage of Grant with a superb ball, controlled just as superbly by Grant, winning a corner.
Syria had the ball in the net, bouncing in directly from an angled free kick, but the play was called back for a foul on Milligan.
It took 25 minutes, but the Syrian boil had simmered back down, and this goal would have hurt Australia had it stood; the Roos had survived the worst of the initial storm. Set pieces would be an ongoing threat for the Syrians.
Luongo, as he had in the first game, was the deepest placed of the midfield three; this makes sense alongside Rogic and Jackson Irvine, but nonetheless neuters Luongo’s attacking abilities somewhat.
Rogic, in the mood, was providing plenty of attacking incision; this pass was a beauty, and Maclaren might have done better with his shot, which was admittedly saved sharply by Ibrahim Alma.
Mabil had a volleyed chance from a short corner, but smacked his shot wide and into a crowd. He made amends a minute later, with a wonderful goal the kind of awesome strike I can’t remember anyone other than Rogic scoring in recent years.
A quick free kick was hurried along, and the ball shifted to the right. Stopping, jutting inside, Mabil unleashed a curling drive that punched into the side of the goal, Alma beaten emphatically.
He ran over to Graham Arnold to celebrate, a celebration he would later say was meant in support of mental health and speaking out. He’s become an instant starter for the Roos over the last two months, and a true emerging star.
The lead lasted less than a minute. From the kick off, an angled long ball was hit from right to left. Mat Ryan came out to punch, but the ball spilled to the left wing, with a Syrian charging in to cross.
In the middle, you can see Milos Degenek lose his man for half a second, Khrbin peeling away behind, with Degenek only a metre or so too far away from him.
It was a perfect cross, and Khrbin had a free header. Ryan saved it, but could not stop the rebounded effort.
With a team so reliant on crossing and headed chances, Degenek’s lapse was critical. 1-1 it was at half time, with two quickfire goals to end the first period.
The tussling resumed after the restart, with Syria probing physically and aerially, and Australia more terrestrially.
Ten minutes into the second half, Rogic again stunned the watching world with a pass of such long-range incision, he might well have fired the ball out of a sniper rifle.
Turning and collecting himself on the right wing, Rogic saw Ikomomidis with his hand up, on the other side of the pitch, and with at least six players in between.
Rogic, sending packing rate calculators into a froth, smacked a bouncing pass through a whole fleet of defenders – it probably should have been cleared, but the angle of the pass was such that it seemed to inspire a mix of hesitation and fear of an own goal in the defence.
Ikonomidis tapped it barely over the line, and the referee’s goal-line watch buzzed into action. 2-1 to Australia.
For Rogic, it’s not only a matter of ability, but mood as well; he can always play this well, but only when he feels buoyed enough, or perhaps Bhoyed enough, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Mark Milligan had the ball bounce up onto his arm, having miscontrolled in the box. It was a penalty dodged by the finest of margins, with the referee having surely seen the ball strike the arm, but evidently judging it as being unintentional.
Syria hit 73 long passes on the night, and the bulk of them came at this point, as the second half rolled on, with clipped passes testing the vigour and fuel of the Australian defenders, often required to rush back to clear under pressure.
Australia had a chance to ice the game, with the newly substituted Apostolos Giannou combining with Ikonomidis well. The latter’s cross was intended for Giannou but was intercepted by Mabil, whose touch set up Rogic, who scuffed his shot.
Machinations here all slightly misaligned, but a promising sequence nevertheless. The next attack was as fluid, unfortunately, aborted by a Rogic offside. This is the exact kind of interplay, with an aversion to hit-and-hope crosses, that must be played against a deep, fearful defence.
In other words, the kind of play we didn’t see against Jordan.
Giannou smacked a shot against the post, played in by a one-two with Mabil. Syria and Al Somah continued to remind Australia that crosses and headers were still a threat that needed constant vigilance.
A soft foul against Milligan gave Syria a free kick within range, capping a small surge in energy by the underdogs. Khrbin stood over it and shot. Ryan saved but, in the aftermath, a cross was flung in, and Al Somah went down in the box.
After an eternity of deliberation time, the referee pointed to the spot. It was a penalty that looked dubious at best, outright confected at worst – it appeared, upon later review, that Al Somah had tripped over his own teammate.
Al Somah scored the spot kick, and levelled the match. Ten minutes remained.
Syria staged a late bombardment on the Australian penalty area, desperate to head home a winner. Australia knew that a draw would be enough to progress from the group, but could not afford to retreat meekly.
Jurman came on for Luongo, a sign that defensive steel was now the priority.
But Tom Rogic, capping his man of the match performance, gave the game the winner it craved with a stunner.
Offered all the time and space to measure his shot on the edge of the box, Rogic sent a thudding shot past Alma, the concussive reverberations of which sent Syrians crumbling to the turf, exhausted and winded.
This match showed Arnold and the team can adjust; there were long stretches of Australian possession here, but uninspired and ill-suited crossing did not hallmark the play as it had against Jordan.
This arrangement of personnel was also pleasing, and gelled nicely; the chance-creation was shared among all the right players, with Aziz Behich, Grant, Mabil, Ikonomidis and of course Rogic all chipping in with good moments.
The passing flowed easily from Milligan, to Luongo, to Rogic, and one wonders if dropping Degenek to make way for Sainsbury’s return might be the right thing to do heading into the next phase of the cup.
Ikonomidis consolidated the sense that Kruse’s time as a starter is over, and Mabil is a wonderful, potent threat.
The shakiness we saw in defence can be partly explained by Sainsbury’s absence, but the team’s inability to assess and adjust for Syria’s fairly one-dimensional approach inspires a small kernel of worry, and will be more severely punished by other, better teams.
Still, onward we go and, if Japan beat Uzbekistan, the Roos will face the Uzbeks in the next round.
As a final note, I have to announce that this will be my last Roar column, at least for a while.
I’ve been offered an ABC cadetship, a role that will take me to Perth for 2019, and rather away from football as my primary area of concern.
It also unfortunately means I won’t be allowed to act as a Roar football expert. This is my 351st article for The Roar and, after hundreds of thousands of words written, I want to thank all of you Roarers for reading them.
I believe The Roar is a unique place in the Australian sports writing landscape, and it’s the crowd that make it so special.
There is no other place of which I’m aware where football is discussed with as much fervour and insight as it is here, and even though I’ve only occasionally taken part in conversations – heated or otherwise – below the line, I want every user to know how absolutely valuable I think these conversations are.
I want to thank Patrick Effeney and Daniel Jeffrey for turning what began as a hobby into a paid gig, as well as all of you Roarers, both complimentary and critical, who have read and responded to my writing over the past five years.