The magnitude of the Socceroos’ 86th minute own goal against Japan last month is highlighted by the potential ramifications of their clash with Saudi Arabia in Sydney tonight.
When Aziz Behich’s night went from bad to worse and a strong finishing Australian team fell behind for the second time against the Japanese on October 12th, any chance of the Socceroos skipping clear at the top of Group B was lost.
Instead, Japan clawed three points closer to the Aussies and Saudi Arabia moved three clear.
That tightened up the group considerably and potentially makes tonight’s contest at CommBank Stadium the most important thus far in the journey towards Qatar.
Japan should have a relatively comfortable night out against the Vietnamese later in the evening, most likely moving to nine points in the group, thus doubling down on the importance of the Australian’s fixture.
After 11 consecutive wins and only a late goal against the Japanese denying them a point, Graham Arnold’s men will enter yet another match full of confidence and there are a host of reasons why that should be the case.
The stadium will be throbbing with local support, recent history against the Saudis bodes well and Arnold has built a team that continues to show resilience and fortitude, no matter the situation.
Sadly, the weather will also doubt play a key role.
Sydney was drenched on Wednesday, and there are few signs that any significant relief will arrive today. In fact, things could get worse and while quality footballers enjoy the speed of the game brought about by a ball skimming across a quality surface, there is also a point where poor weather becomes more of a hindrance than a help.
Unfortunately, that looks to be the challenge facing the Socceroos tonight; against a team that would happily walk away with a point, especially considering upcoming matches against Vietnam and Oman that they will feel incredibly confident of winning.
A point for the Green Falcons tonight and six more in the two matches that follow would have them perched rather comfortable at the top of the group and close to qualification with 19 points and three matches to play.
Should a draw indeed play out this evening and the Socceroos also manage wins in their subsequent fixtures against China and Vietnam, the three point deficit would remain.
The Japanese would then loom as potential group winners and the biggest threat to the Socceroos’ automatic qualification to Qatar 2020; potentially sitting on 15 points, just two behind Arnold’s men and four from the group leaders after the three expected victories.
Of course, a significant break will mean the actually reality of this hypothesis will not be known until the new year, yet the Socceroos have the chance to change the thrust of that narrative with a first win on home soil for 763 days.
The rain will not stop the fans, yet the absence of Tom Rogic and Aaron Mooy will result in some managerial rethinking from Arnold, especially considering the returns of Melbourne City trio Andrew Nabbout, Mathew Leckie and Jamie Maclaren.
Who the manager chooses to start up top is anyone’s guess, with his consistent use of Mitchell Duke and an understandable wariness around using Maclaren and/or Leckie from the off potentially handing the Japanese-based striker a rare start in Socceroo kit.
However Arnold plays things, he has the depth and talent of squad to win this match, yet Saudi Arabia have been perfect in the campaign to this point and should conditions turn particularly feral this evening, may well fancy their chances on the counter and be prepared to sit quite deep for much of the contest.
Worse still, if the visitors remain perfect, any thoughts of reining them in will effectively be lost and Japan would become the entire focus for the remainder of the campaign.
Almost certainly, Group B automatic qualification will ultimately come down to the Australia-Japan match on the 24th of March and the Socceroos’ clash with Saudi Arabia five days later. However, an Australian win tonight in Sydney could potentially mean both would need to beat the Australians in March to bump them to third in the group and once again send the Socceroos to play-off hell.
We all know exactly what that means and at this stage of proceedings, would set up a wonderfully interesting clash with current third place in Group A, Lebanon.
As much fun as that would be, in Sydney and in front of thousands of Lebanese fans, we really don’t want it. More preferred is a win against Saudi Arabia tonight and a place at the top of the qualifying group.
Something tells me this is going to be a nail-biter.