Ange Postecoglou’s Socceroos made it three from three in World Cup qualifying with a 3-0 over Tajikistan. Joey Ratcliffe looks back on a mostly frustrating 90 minutes for Australia and what they can take from the performance.
The match was played in Tajikistan on the eve of the day they celebrate their independence from the USSR. To the ignorant, the Central Asian nation is better known as being just another ‘stan’ country. Historically, they are a former member of the former Soviet Republic, the nation that made up most of Central Asia before it was disbanded at the end of the Cold War. After the split from the Soviet Union, the newly formed nation suffered through a bloody civil war that raged for almost half a decade.
Australia was definitely venturing into the unknown, and into a nation with a turbulent history and current, well-documented unrest. However, unlike the ragged pitch that the Socceroos struggled with in Kyrgyzstan, the Australian men’s team were playing on a synthetic pitch for the first time ever.
Many of the pitches in Russia – and indeed across the former Soviet states – use artificial grass to deal with the difficult winter months, but for the World Cup in 2018, those stadiums will use grass temporarily, like Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow which will host the final.
Naturally, the Socceroos were dominant early in the qualifier against the 158th best side in the world (according to FIFA’s rankings, proudly sponsored by Coca-Cola), just like in the two previous World Cup qualifiers against Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh.
One of the liveliest moments early on, however, came when Tajikistan’s Fatkhullo Fatkhulloev danced and dribbled past Australia’s midfield, showing decent skill, but ultimately lacking end product.
It was a warning shot though, and despite Australia’s constant possession, the Tajik’s looked to counter attack and do so quickly and with organisation. To their misfortune, the defensive line of Ryan McGowan, Bailey Wright, Matthew Spiranovic and Jason Davidson were regularly up to the task.
Nine minutes in, stand-in captain Tim Cahill had a great chance from an Aaron Mooy corner, but after rising brilliantly he struck his header wide. Two minutes later, and after being given the room to dribble, Matt McKay had a rare left-footed sighter from outside the box.
The Socceroos had taken a firm foothold on the match, and on the half hour mark, Massimo Luongo and Mathew Leckie had chances saved off the line by the goalkeeper and defender, and it seemed only a matter of time before the green and gold would be on the scoreboard.
Three minutes later though and there were another two flashes of the problems the Tajiks were capable of causing as Dzhakhongir Dzhalilov looked to slice the Australians in half with a mazy dribble, but his pass went astray. Then, as the half came to a close, Khurshed Makhmudov burned Ryan McGowan down Australia’s right-side. The attack showed intent and spice that was lacking in Australia’s, despite the Socceroos’ heavy possession and dominance, and that was summed up as Cahill kicked the post in frustration right on the interval as another half-chance failed to test the goalkeeper.
Clear-cut chances were hard to come by and even when they came, the defence and goalkeeping was equal to whatever the Australians had conjured up. Unlike Bangladesh in the Socceroos’ previous match, the Tajiks were hardly overawed and played the role of the willing underdog, willing to attack when they got an opportunity.
The home side started the second half at a frantic pace, hardly allowing the Australian side a moment on the ball as the hassled and closed down, leading to mistakes and fouls by the Australian midfield.
When Leckie looked to attack with a dribble and was taken down with a foul, a set-piece in range was perhaps that kind of opportunity Australia needed to break the deadlock. Mooy hit the post with the subsequent free kick though, as it was really turning into one of those nights, and shortly after Cahill had another headed chance from a corner but once again failed to hit the target.
And he continued to be thwarted no matter what he tried. A minute later Cahill tried to dribble the ball from deep but was brought crashing to the ground by a thunderous tackle from Davronjon Ergashev which roused the home crowd growing in enthusiasm and the home team in confidence as they kept the Asian champions at 0-0.
But just as the locals thought they might take something from the match, an unlikely saviour in Mark Milligan finally got the Socceroos on the scoreboard with a scrappy shot from a second ball off a corner.
The breakthrough seemed to relax the favourites, and ten minutes later Cahill finally had his goal courtesy of McGowan, the same player who delivered the cross for that Cahill goal at the 2014 World Cup. After being sent through on the byline, McGowan delivered a perfect low-cross into the path of the grateful Cahill who made no mistake this time. To the disappointment of the boisterous home crowd, their side was suddenly down 2-0 and it looked a long way back.
They responded well though, and Fatkhulloev had a chance at the other end when he sent his shot wide of Adam Federici’s post, before another Tajik strike hit the side-netting which many in the ground thought had gone in.
The closing moments saw Cahill head home his second – another headed goal courtesy of a pin-point Tommy Oar cross to the badly-marked captain – and the Socceroos had won 3-0 against the unknown quantity of Tajikistan. Three qualifiers down and Australia had won all nine points and were clear leaders at the top of Group B.
The results of each game weren’t as high-scoring as many Australians would expect against such footballing minnows, but in a stage of qualifying where only the best survive, not dropping points is a feat in itself. The biggest test is still to come, as Australia are yet to play Jordan, who are the toughest opponents in the group and have major tournament experience – plus a handy record against the Group B leaders.
In 2012, Jordan beat Australia in Amman during the fourth qualifying stage for the 2014 World Cup. That defeat threatened to derail the Socceroos’ campaign and meant they were forced to seal qualification in their final qualifying match against Iraq in 2013. (Thankfully on that night – the final highlight of the controversial tenure of Holger Oesick – Josh ‘Jesus’ Kennedy was able to head the Aussies to Brazil with the winning goal).
Current manager Ange Postecoglou has an Asian Cup title to his name, but the last three quaifiers are his first as a manager, in World Cup or Asian Cup qualifying.
Postecoglou is yet to experience what it’s like to slip-up in Asian qualifying – you’re bound to lose on the road at some point. In a similar stage of qualifying under Pim Verbeek for the 2010 World Cup, Australia lost on the road to Iraq, were lucky to escape from Kunming with a point against China, and lost the return fixture in Sydney.
The stakes are high in this stage of qualifying and the Socceroos will need all six points against Jordan to be sure of qualification for the next stage. It’s a perfect start but there is still no margin for error.
On a more positive note, in the last two qualifiers Postecoglou has successfully blooded some future talent into the national set-up. Players that will be a part of the World Cup in 2018, should we qualify, have been introduced to the full national team set-up and practically all have given decent accounts of themselves.
Despite all already having won caps, Bailey Wright, Aaron Mooy, Nathan Burns, and Tom Rogic are now bona fide Socceroos and all look the part. They let their talents shine and are now further ingrained in a team that will need them over the next three years.