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'No fluency, seem rigid': Socceroos ride their luck to the top of Asian Cup group but key failure shows huge cause for concern

23rd January, 2024
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23rd January, 2024
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The Socceroos were far from impressive for a third straight match at the Asian Cup but thanks to a bewildering gift from the match officials secured a 1-1 draw with Uzbekistan to top Group B.

The point was enough for Uzbekistan to finish in second, with Syria third after beating India.

Martin Boyle dispatched a penalty in first half injury time after a brilliant mazy run from Kusini Yengi. It was Australia’s only shot on target for the game, although Yengi did have a goal ruled out for an offside in the lead up from Boyle.

The Portsmouth forward – preferred over Bruno Fornaroli to lead the line in the absence of injured Mitch Duke – beat four defenders and put a chance on a plate for Riley McGree who somehow dragged his shot wide.

But the game was paused for several minutes while VAR looked at a moment in the lead up where Odiljon Hamrobekov slid in to challenge Yengi and the ball brushed his arm.

Martin Boyle of Australia celebrates with team mates after scoring his team's first goal from a penalty kick during the AFC Asian Cup Group B match between Australia and Uzbekistan at Al Janoub Stadium on January 23, 2024 in Al Wakrah, Qatar. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Martin Boyle of Australia celebrates with team mates after scoring. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

A young eagle-eyed Australian fan appealed for the handball – but none of the Socceroos did – a clear sign of how soft the ultimate call was from referee Yusuke Araki.

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Andy Harper, on the Network 10 commentary, said he would be “aggrieved” by the call.

His colleague Luke Wilkshire, a former Socceroo said: “No player appealed for it, no one saw it. It’s a little brush off the hand. There’s no way in the world that’s intentional and again VAR raises its head and wants to be the deciding factor.”

The goal came at the end of an underwhelming first half where Australia produced little up front and made several poor passes out from the back leading to Uzbekistan half chances.

Once Harry Souttar gave up the ball in a dangerous position only to swoop back with a desperate and crucial tackle.

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The giant Leicester defender was also alert to block Otabek Shukurov after the Uzbekistani had found plenty of room to shoot.

Uzbekistan were much improved after the break and their equaliser – their first ever goal against Australia – was well deserved. It arrived on 78 minutes when Azizbek Turg’unboyev rose above Aziz Behich to head home a cross from Jaloliddin Masharipov.

Australia have lacked zest throughout the tournament – despite wins and clean sheets against India and Syria – and this was a difficult match against a foe that pressed hard to prevent Australia passing through midfield.

Worryingly the performance up front was disjointed and the Socceroos struggled to make an impact.

“Let’s be honest it’s job done – but there’s no fluency, we seem rigid,” said Wilkshire. “We’re not creating a great deal of clear cut opportunities which is a concern. There were zero saves from either goalkeeper – which sums up where we’re at.”

Former Socceroo Alex Wilkinson agreed with the sober assessment.

“Moving forward into the business end of the tournament we are going to need to improve, especially with the ball,” said Wilkinson.

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“We’re lacking creativity in possession. The ball movement was way too slow and the build up – we moved from side to side and took way too many touches. Against good teams you’re no chance of breaking them down if you do that.”

Boyle said the team needed to “be more ruthless at the top end.

“We are creating a lot of chances. The link play is good. We’re getting in the right area to score goals and we just have to put them away and take the pressure off the defence.”

But Wilkshire took exception to Boyle’s summary.

“It’s more than taking chances and being ruthless because I don’t think we’ve created enough clear cut chances,” said Wilkshire.

“If they can have a look back at that they won’t see a lot of clear cut chances. There were a few shots from distance, a few balls in the box that got cleared, but the goalkeeper didn’t have to make a save – he’s gone 90 odd minutes without making a save. So there’s more than just being ruthless and clinical because I don’t think we’re creating enough.”

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