Having romped through the second round of Asian qualifiers, the Socceroos are back in World Cup action and aiming to kick-start the third phase with a win over China in Doha on Friday.
Graham Arnold’s men recorded eight wins from eight to finish top of Group B in the second round of qualifying, smashing minnows Nepal and Chinese Taipei twice and finishing a group stage that kicked off nearly two years earlier with a 1-0 win over the tricky Jordan.
Progression to the next round always felt routine, but things could get decidedly tougher from here in a group that should contain a few surprises.
China – Khalifa International Stadium, Doha – Friday 4am AEST
China finished second to Syria in Group A, despite downing the Syrians 3-1 in Sharjah in their final second round qualifier.
They’ve picked four naturalised players to face the Socceroos, the most interesting of whom is surely England-born defender Tyias Browning – or Jiang Guangtai as he’s known in China.
The former Everton defender qualifies for the national team through his Chinese grandfather and he’s already featured three times in the heart of defence, having made his debut earlier this year.
The other naturalised players are familiar faces to those who follow Chinese football, with Elkeson and Alan joined by newcomer Aloisio in a squad boasting some serious firepower.
— Alan Carvalho (@AlannCarvalho) July 3, 2015
But the jewel in the crown remains Wu Lei, with the versatile Espanyol striker the only foreign-based player called up by coach Li Tie.
China’s talismanic front man bagged eight goals in the second round of qualifying – scoring in four consecutive fixtures when qualification resumed earlier this year – and the former Shanghai Port striker would no doubt love to get on the scoresheet in Doha.
One to watch – Elkeson
If Wu Lei is China’s spiritual leader then Brazilian-born striker Elkeson – or Ai Kesen to give him his Chinese name – is the man who perhaps poses the most serious danger.
The Guangzhou FC striker has made a slow return to World Cup qualifying, scoring just once this year in a 7-0 rout of Guam. But the 32-year-old hasn’t scored more than 100 goals in the Chinese Super League for nothing and he’ll be keen to make his mark now that Alan and Aloisio are breathing down his neck.
Vietnam – My Dinh Stadium, Hanoi – 10pm AEST Tuesday
Without doubt the most recent big improvers in Asian football, Vietnam have never reached this phase of World Cup qualifying before.
They have Australia to thank in part after the Socceroos’ 1-0 win over Jordan in their final second round encounter confirmed Vietnam as one of the five best-placed runners-up.
The Golden Stars turned in some Herculean displays in Group B, drubbing Indonesia 3-1 in Bali and backing it up with a dramatic 1-0 win over the United Arab Emirates in front of a packed house at the National Stadium in late 2019.
Not even a pandemic could slow their momentum and after belting Indonesia 4-0 on their return to World Cup action, it was a gritty 2-1 win over Malaysia that ultimately sealed their progression to the third round.
They still needed Australia to knock off Jordan in Kuwait City to qualify, but having come this far, they won’t exactly be keen to repay the favour on Tuesday night.
One to watch – Nguyen Quang Hai
Does the name sound familiar? It probably should. There’s no shortage of talent in this Vietnamese side but Nguyen Quang Hai is an absolute star.
A diminutive creative talent who plays his club football with V-League side Hanoi FC, Quang Hai scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over the Olyroos back in January 2018.
Widely regarded as one of finest talents to emerge from South-East Asia in years, the 24-year-old has been virtually ever-present in Vietnam’s run up the FIFA rankings.
How will the Socceroos fare?
Graham Arnold has picked an almost exclusively foreign-based squad, with Sydney FC defender Rhyan Grant the only A-League representative.
The nation’s strict COVID regulations have proved a huge headache for Football Australia, with skipper Mat Leckie a late withdrawal after understandably not wanting to go through quarantine on his way back to new club Melbourne City.
The Socceroos would have run out against China in front of a packed house in Parramatta, but the match will instead take place in the sterile confines of Khalifa International Stadium in Doha.
Sadly for a Vietnamese team that tends to sell out every game at their My Dinh National Stadium home in Hanoi, they’ll face Australia on Tuesday night behind closed doors.
The Aussies will look to get off to a flyer in a group that contains traditional powerhouses Japan, but while six points from the two games should be the goal, that might be easier said than done given the difficult preparations.
You can watch Australia’s clash with China live on Channel 10 at 4am AEST on Friday, with Simon Hill back behind the microphone.