It was an underwhelming piece of history, but history nonetheless: Australia have retained the Soccer Ashes, some 80 years since they were last contested, with a comfortable 2-0 win over New Zealand in London.
Massimo Luongo, who was also returning after long time out, was the star. His last appearance for his country was five years ago, but he immediately dominated, adding intelligence to the midfield and continually finding space between the lines to create opportunities.
With Aaron Mooy now retired, Luongo’s comeback as an experienced, clever midfielder is timely addition to Grrarham Arnold’s options ahead of two World Cup qualifiers in November and an Asian Cup in January.
“An amazing feeling,” said Luongo. “I just enjoyed it. I wasn’t nervous, I didn’t build it up in my head. I felt at home.
“Today, Arnie put me in and put his full trust in me. I think the boys played really well. We played with a lot of freedom. I am just happy to get on the pitch and do what I can do. I loved it.”
The win continued the confidence in the camp that was gained through a strong performance against England over the weekend, with several passages of excellent one-touch football and a solid defensive showing that denied the Kiwis as much as a single shot on target.
The issues in attack do remain, however. Mitch Duke, playing as the central striker, did turn home his first opportunity – though it was later given to Harry Souttar, whom it clipped on the way through – but spurned others.
Brandon Borrello, introduced late as competition for the number nine role, produced a contender for miss of the year before the A-League season has even started, sending a shot wide with an open goal in front of him.
Arnold gave a debut to Alex Circati, the Parma centre back, and a first start to Lewis Miller, as well as the return for Luongo.
Circati was unflustered at the back on debut, though hardly tested by a Kiwi attack that never got going. Bill Tuiloma’s free kick off the bar was as good as it got for the All Whites.
“The most important thing is creating chances and we created plenty but didn’t put many in the back of the net,” said Arnold. “I am pleased with how we played and improvement is the key.”
New Zealand had the brighter start, and by the time Australia took the lead, it was very much against the run of play.
On the face of it, it was a well-constructed goal with Circati showing good strength to keep a cross in play at the back post, allowing Duke to slam home via Souttar.
Questions, however, must be asked of the defending: the Kiwis had more than enough opportunity to stop the ball coming in, and then were comprehensively outmuscled in the area.
Not long after, Duke had another opportunity gifted to him by the All Whites backline, as they left him all along in the box. Fortunately for them, the striker perhaps didn’t realise just how much time he had and miscontrolled the ball.
Having been excellent early on, New Zealand could not get out. The Socceroos had numerous half chances and a goal was ruled out, correctly, when Martin Boyle turned home a cross.
In response, a Chris Wood header was the best that the Kiwis could offer.
After the break, the Socceroos kicked up the tempo and found success.
Luongo and Connor Metcalfe were pulling the strings in midfield, and the pair combined with the best move of the game, only for Kiwi keeper Michael Woud to save well.
Moments later, Metcalfe created an even better opportunity for Boyle, but the keeper to came out sharply and denied Australia again.
The inevitable subs came around the hour mark, but sparked the Socceroos into life.
Craig Goodwin, introduced on the left, had an immediate impact to force a chance for Ryan Strain, before Irvine nodded in the second to settle the result. Again, the Kiwis will question how simply they were breached, with the midfielder under little pressure inside the six yard box at a corner.
Borrello, tasked with making an impression up front, could have done that late on, but instead hit the post with an open goal.