Back in September, the Socceroos comfortably dealt with China 3-0 and scraped home against Vietnam by a single goal.
The following month, Awer Mabil, Martin Boyle and Mitchell Duke had fans in raptures after slotting the three goals that saw the team past the dangerous Oman, despite a few scares.
Those results shot Australia to the top of the World Cup qualifying standings with an also undefeated Saudi Arabia and set up what loomed as potentially the most crucial fixture in the entire campaign, one that always brings up wonderful and/or heart-breaking memories.
The Samurai Blue had lined up against the Aussies on 25 occasions heading into that fixture last October, a long history that began at the 1956 Olympics and was destined to fuel yet another compelling chapter.
Japan is Australia’s most consistent and contextually challenging rival, always there in major tournaments as near favourite and beginning to build something of an impressive record and advantage in head-to-head fixtures.
With Australia seemingly about to take a well-earned point from the October 12 fixture, a gut-wrenching 86th minute own goal from Aziz Behich derailed what had been a perfect campaign to that point.
It felt like the opportunity of a lifetime to put the Japanese in a world of pain, after a shaky start to their campaign saw them drop points against both the Saudis and Oman, with a third loss potentially eliminating them from top-two contention in the group.
Instead it was unlucky heartbreak for the umpteenth time and things turned from bad to worse soon after.
Single points earned by Graham Arnold’s men against Saudi Arabia and China allowed Japan to catch, pass and obliterate the promising Socceroo start to the third round of qualifying – so much so that Thursday night’s fixture against Vietnam and the February 2 date with Oman have now become must-win matches.
With Japan and the Saudis strong favourites in their fixtures this week, anything other than six points from the next six available will likely see the Green Falcons well out of reach and even an unlikely victory by the Socceroos against Japan on March 24 still potentially not enough to leapfrog their nemesis.
In short, things just got real for the Socceroos and with news that Arnold has been hit by COVID-19, one wonders whether we are about to see yet another disappointing chapter written; this time even more painful thanks to the excellent start to qualification that the team managed in 2021.
I hate to say it, but this reeks of disaster.
A full set of six points will keep things alive and certainly provide hope, yet I am just not sure whether I can dig deep into the emotional well one more time and dangerously invest in the Socceroos’ plight over the remaining four matches. Previous wounds are still healing, tender and constant reminders of the torment felt by fans of the team and the enviable happiness that many Australians experience by not caring one hoot about football.
The easy way out would be to focus on Ash Barty’s run at the Australian Open, or absorb oneself in the A-Leagues if football does appeal. The idea of watching these next two fixtures and hoping like we have never hoped before that the men in gold can find the goals required via some fresh injections of enthusiasm is the most unappealing of propositions, especially considering the potential for catastrophe.
But, like you, I will never give up – hoping for a miracle, a Japanese disaster, a Saudi Arabian calamity, and a pair of Australian wins that reignite their chances of qualification.
That would set up two of the biggest matches ever in Australian football when the Socceroos face their two group rivals in late March.
I’ll be online covering this Thursday’s fixture for The Roar, hopeful and emotional. Yet no matter which way I read the tea leaves or tweak the numbers, something tells me significant pain is just around the corner.