Of all the coaches in international football, you’d have got long odds on Graham Arnold being the one to transform his side from struggling also-rans into a genuinely exciting outfit.
There was a moment deep into stoppage time of Australia’s 3-1 win over Ecuador in Parramatta on Friday night – not picked up by Network Ten’s cameras – which summed up exactly why Socceroos fans have every right to feel excited.
With Marco Tilio fouled near the sideline, a quickly taken free-kick caught the Ecuadorian defence off guard.
But it wasn’t the speed of the set piece that sent Brandon Borrello galloping clear of the visitors’ defence. It was the deftest of first-touch flicks from debutant Alex Robertson, who tormented the Ecuadorian defence after coming on shortly after the half-hour mark.
Borrello ultimately sent his skidding shot just wide of the far post, but the move highlighted exactly why Football Australia was so desperate to get Manchester City midfielder Robertson to pledge his allegiance to the Socceroos.
Following in the international footsteps of his grandfather and father, the ‘third generation’ angle no doubt makes for a fantastic storyline. But the bigger picture is that Robertson is clearly a serious talent.
The 19-year-old barely put a foot wrong in a stunning cameo off the bench, and even found time to get embroiled in a bit of argy bargy after he thought he was tripped in the box.
It was no surprise to see Socceroos enforcer Harry Souttar step in and protect the Scottish-born teenager, with the bigger surprise surely the fact that a number of players who had the option to represent other nations choosing to play for Australia.
Robertson’s measured display was hardly the only impressive performance, with virtually every player on the pitch playing their part in what was a comprehensive victory.
Following all the headlines around Mitch Langerak missing out on selection for the 2022 World Cup, Mat Ryan has silenced his critics with a series of outstanding displays in goal.
He was faultless on the night and pulled off a handful of reflex saves to remind everyone just why he’s Australia’s No.1.
Australia’s central defensive pairing of Souttar and Kye Rowles was rock solid once again – even if Souttar isn’t the most mobile of centre-backs – while Milos Degenek did an adequate job in the problematic right-back position.
Aiden O’Neill overcame a couple of shaky early moments to turn in a decent performance on debut, but it was Jackson Irvine who bossed proceedings in the centre of the park.
Irvine has taken his game up a level since his switch to 2.Bundesliga side St. Pauli and the cult midfielder opened the scoring after Mitch Duke’s acrobatic cut-back some 12 minutes in.
It was Irvine’s pressing that led to Australia’s second goal as well, as he pressured Ecuador defender Piero Hincapie into turning over possession in a dangerous area, allowing Awer Mabil to smash home an unstoppable second from close range.
And the Socceroos didn’t let up in the second half, with a marauding Aziz Behich teeing up teenager Garang Kuol for his first goal in a Socceroos jersey.
Never mind the fact that Kuol was offside – and almost deflected the ball away from goal – the strike will do much to boost the on-loan Hearts attacker’s flagging confidence.
Mind you, I doubt the Aussie coaching staff were overly thrilled with Kuol’s celebration – he went the full knee-slide route but got caught in the spongy Commbank Stadium turf – but here’s hoping it’s the first of many for the attacking live wire.
It will be interesting to see what sort of starting 11 Arnold puts out in the second fixture in Melbourne on Tuesday night.
Whoever he selects, it’s impossible to argue with the fact Arnie has overseen a remarkable turnaround in fortunes.
From the verge of unemployment, Graham Arnold has suddenly transformed the Socceroos into one of the more intriguing outfits anywhere in world football.