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Opinion

World Cup draw yields plenty of familiar faces for the Socceroos

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Expert
2nd July, 2021
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If familiarity breeds contempt, the Socceroos must really hate Japan after Australia was drawn in the same World Cup qualification group for the fourth campaign in a row.

The Socceroos have been drawn in Group B for the final round of Asian qualifying, joining top seeds Japan, regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, China, Oman and a fast-improving Vietnam.

It means Graham Arnold’s men will face off against Japan for a fourth-consecutive campaign, after the Samurai Blue qualified for the 2018 World Cup at Australia’s expense following a 2-0 win in Saitama.

The draw leaves Socceroos fans still dreaming of a rematch with Iran, after Team Melli were drawn as top seeds in Group A alongside South Korea, the Bert van Marwijk-coached United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Only the width of the post prevented Syria from knocking the Socceroos out of the last World Cup, after the Syrians finished third in their group and faced Australia in a tense two-legged Asian playoff.

By the time the Socceroos downed Honduras in the subsequent inter-confederation playoff, Ange Postecoglou was already on his way out.

His long-term successor Arnold has arguably drawn a slightly easier route than might have been anticipated, with the Socceroos largely avoiding having to camp out in the Middle East.

While Saudi Arabia and Oman both represent testing trips under normal circumstances, the current COVID situation – and the fact qualifiers may yet take place in regional hubs – means Arnold will be left to let his football do most of the talking.

With two-game international weeks scheduled in September, October and November, much of the details for the next slate of qualifiers remains up in the air.

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But there’s no doubt Japan remains a familiar opponent. While the Socceroos slalomed their way through the second round of qualifying, winning eight games from eight and finishing with a goal difference of +26, the Japanese were even more impressive.

They may not exactly have faced the might of world football in facing off against the likes of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Myanmar, but the Samurai Blue still managed to rattle home 46 goals and conceded just twice in a one-sided romp through Group F.

They started by smashing Mongolia 6-0 in front of more than 40,000 fans at Saitama Stadium months before COVID hit, before annihilating Mongolia and Myanmar 14-0 and 10-0 respectively behind closed doors in Chiba.

Liverpool striker Takumi Minamino bagged nine goals for the campaign, while Werder Bremen veteran Yuya Osako finished with eight, with the likes of Real Madrid starlet Takefusa Kubo and Yokohama F. Marinos front man Ado Onaiwu slotting in as required.

If anything, Japan are arguably even stronger now than they were when they beat Australia under Vahid Halilhodzic, even if Hajime Moriyasu isn’t the most imaginative of coaches.

But one thing that will count in Graham Arnold’s favour is Australia’s generally impressive record in World Cup qualification. Japan may not fear the Socceroos, but they certainly respect them.

And with the Socceroos having drawn 2-2 with Saudi Arabia in front of a hostile crowd in Jeddah in 2018 World Cup qualifying, before winning the return fixture 3-2 in Adelaide, the Green Falcons will hold no major surprises.

Only Vietnam loom as a potential banana skin, with the South-East Asian nation one of world football’s big improvers in recent years.

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After reaching the knock-out stages of the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates, a young Vietnamese side stunned Jordan on penalties before only going down 1-0 to Japan in the quarter-finals.

They could present a danger – particularly if they get the chance to play in Hanoi – although you can also never count out an always well-prepared Oman.

But it’s Japan, as ever, that looms large as Australia’s biggest threat. With 4.5 spots up grabs through Asia, another trip to our northern neighbour awaits – even if some of us wish it had been Iran.

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