The Socceroos had the chance to scoot nine points clear of Japan in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday night in Saitama.
Had they won, the path to Qatar 2020 would have seemed almost assured for Graham Arnold’s team, barring some sort of unprecedented collapse in the return fixtures to come against the other five nations.
With Saudi Arabia and the Socceroos setting the pace early in the campaign, another three points for Australia against the Samurai Blue, matching the three that the Saudis picked up against China just a few hours later, would have seen both put daylight between themselves and the remainder of the teams still hoping to qualify for a FIFA World Cup that draws ever closer.
Instead, the Socceroos conceded an 86th minute goal, after drawing level early in the second half at 1-1. Sadly, it was left-back Aziz Behich who was credited with the late own goal that sealed the fate of the Socceroos and the Japanese fans who were lucky enough to be in the stadium were full of fervour and enthusiasm in the minutes that followed.
They knew full well that their nation’s avenue to Qatar had been re-established with the win.
Behich cut a forlorn figure, desperate in his attempt to track back and clear the ball from the Socceroo goal-line after Mathew Ryan had touched a high looping ball that appeared to almost accidently enter the area.
Behich was there at the back post to clear, yet the keeper’s touch had created an imbalance and uncertainty in his footing. When the ball finally arrived within a metre or so of the back post, Behich was all over the place and could do little more than swing recklessly at the ball before it deflected off his lower leg and into the back of the net.
Such is the game of football, and every player will encounter such an unfortunate situation frequently in their playing careers.
However, for Behich it was a double blow. He had already lived enough pain on the night after losing his bearings when a long ball was played into a dangerous area in the eighth minute of the match. The moment called for him to either hack the ball away in desperation or, if possible, take possession of it and advance the play in Australia’s favour down the left flank.
With Ao Tanaka looming on the right wing for the Japanese, Behich turned a dangerous situation into a critical one, never touched the ball and watched helplessly as Tanaka fired across Ryan for a clinical strike that set Japan on their way towards a much needed and emotional victory.
Aziz Behich is a fine footballer.
Capped 43 times for his nation and with over 200 professional league appearances for clubs in Australia, Turkey and Holland, his pedigree is unquestioned. However, on Tuesday against the hustle and bustle of a Japanese side with its back against the wall, he lived an utter nightmare.
Those of us who have played football in the defensive end know all too well just how silly and ashamed one can feel after blundering a clearance or seeing a defender scythe past with ease.
Frankly, it makes a defensive player sick to the stomach and despite hundreds of well-timed challenges, clearances and excellent use of the body where the attacker is outplayed and a goal-kick earned, it often only takes one calamitous moment to shatter and scar the players burdened with the task of preventing goals.
Behich would have hardly slept the night following the game; distraught that his errors may well have cost the Socceroos at least a point and potentially, depending on the way things pan out over the next four months, a spot at the 2022 World Cup.
It is an unfair load for one man to bear, especially considering that both conceded goals with which he was involved took deviations that could well have contributed to his downfall.
Moreover, there were a host of other Socceroos whose performances were far from befitting their resumes, although less attention many of them drew, thanks to avoiding errors that led directly to goals.
I’m an unashamed Behich fan, will continue to be so and at the age of 30, he is likely to earn plenty more national caps.
What I am hoping is that the rest of the Socceroos gathered around him in support immediately after the match, knowing that he would have felt utterly rubbish and to blame.
They needed to do so because Behich is the best option the Socceroos have at left back and one bad night will not change that fact.