Early Friday morning, the Socceroos will begin the serious phase of another World Cup qualifying campaign that will once again, at some point, have blood pressures rising.
It is what they do to us and we both hate and love them for it. This time around it will be China, Oman, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam that potentially block the path to a fifth consecutive appearance at the finals.
COVID-19 decimated world football before Europe led the slow creep towards normality with a successful Euro 2020. The major leagues are now back in full swing and crowds have returned.
With the A-League still two months away, Socceroos coach Graham Arnold has been forced to assemble a squad for the upcoming matches against China and Vietnam, almost exclusively made up of overseas based Australians.
Rhyan Grant is the only exception, with the long standing relationship between he and the manager, as well as his immense value at right back, leading to Sydney FC and Football Australia working closely together to develop a plan that allowed the aggressive defender to travel abroad for the opening two matches.
Grant’s inclusion is understandable, yet the composition of the remainder of the squad looks a very shrewd move.
A host of A-League teams are far from fully assembled, practice matches have been non-existent across much of the country and the current fitness and sharpness of Australian based players must surely raise questions about their ability to head abroad and secure the six points that Australia will undoubtedly require to keep pace with Japan and Saudi Arabia in the early stages of qualifying.
As such, Arnold has assembled a group of players, admittedly at different stages of their overseas club campaigns, yet with the majority playing regularly.
Current form must be the number one priority heading into a vital pair of matches that, if lost, could condemn the Socceroos to a group placing outside the top two.
The issue of form raises some deep concerns and also some bright possibilities.
Whilst Mat Ryan has been a mainstay between the sticks for Socceroos in recent years, limited game time with both Arsenal and now Real Sociedad is concerning.
Danny Vukovic is yet to appear for his new club in the Netherlands, Paul Izzo’s season with Xanthi in Greece is yet to begin and Lawrence Thomas’ regular play in Denmark could well make him the surprise choice come Friday morning.
Defensively, Harry Souttar’s solid and consistent form in the centre of defence with Stoke makes him a lock for the opening fixture, Bailey Wright has a solid month of appearances under his belt with Sunderland and Trent Sainsbury has apparently looked sharp and decisive in his recent performances for KV Kortrijk in Belgium.
Aziz Behich must surely start on the left of defence.
He has arguably been the Socceroos’ most consistent player in recent times and debuted for his new club in Turkey last weekend, whilst a fit Milos Degenek appears to be all the evidence Arnold needs to select the Red Star Belgrade defender.
In midfield, the manager will no doubt look in the direction of Aaron Mooy. Impressive in China last season and despite little recent football, he will remain one of the keys to Australia’s chances.
Sadly, Jackson Irvine does not appear to have the minutes or metres in his legs right now and Denis Genreau must have Arnold sceptical after what was an awful performance at the Tokyo Olympics, where the youngster failed dismally when the moment presented itself.
In more positive midfield news, Ajdin Hrustic is a regular starter in Frankfurt and a certainty to begin this match.
Tom Rogic has looked re-invigorated under Ange Postecoglou at Celtic and Daniel Arzani is back on the pitch in Belgium and starting to show signs of the skills and talents that had us all so excited just a few years ago.
Up front, Hibernian’s Martin Boyle demands selection, with Hibs on top of the SPL ladder and his form impressive. Adam Taggart has moved to Japan and with a struggling team failed to really find top form, whilst Awer Mabil will already be pencilled in by Arnold after a continuation of his development in Denmark over the last 6 months. His long term future as a Socceroo seems assured.
The manager may well spring a surprise, as he is prone to do, with Kenneth Dougall, Callum Elder, James Jeggo, Brad Smith, Riley McGree and Mitchell Duke outside chances to earn a starting spot.
However, with the football world still righting itself and starting to resume its natural flow, the players enjoying minutes abroad and not those still cooling their heels for opportunities that will hopefully appear later in the season, need to be the men Arnold backs in these opening two fixtures.
Now is not the time to experiment. Two wins and nothing else will be an acceptable start to what looks a very tricky qualifying campaign.