Against Saudi Arabia on Thursday, the Socceroos came flying out of the blocks. The opening 45 minutes against China was the total antithesis to that performance; Slow, scrappy and disjointed.
Eyebrows were raised when China named an incredibly attack minded side, especially after the Socceroos were able to waltz through their seemingly non-existent midfield when the two sides last met. However, this time China were disciplined and organised out of possession (dropping in to a 4-4-2 formation) before transitioning to four attackers who threw everything but the kitchen sink at a Souttar-less Socceroos defence at every opportunity.
Australia looked pretty listless, much to the ire of Graham Arnold who was clearly audible on the touchline, but after 38 minutes of fairly insipid football Mitchell Duke broke the deadlock, leaping above his marker to get on the end of a Martin Boyle cross.
While perhaps not a textbook header, the Fagiano Okayama forward nodded the ball down at the ground with enough force to see it bounce past the Chinese ‘keeper.
Despite offering very little offensively in the second half, China hauled themselves back in to the game when Jimmy Jeggo was penalised for a handball. Despite there seemingly being little in it, the man in the middle pointed to the spot after consulting with VAR and goalscoring machine Wu Lei duly slotted his effort away from the spot.
After the highs of last week’s joyous reunion, Socceroos supporters will have been brought back down to earth with a bump thanks to this dull and disappointing draw in Sarjah.
DUKE DEMONSTRATES HIS WORTH
Mitch Duke might not have been a permanent fixture in the Socceroos line-up of late but once again he demonstrated just how important a role he has to play on the road to Qatar.
Whenever he has been called upon by Graham Arnold, be that in the starting XI or off the bench, the former Western Sydney Wanderers fan favourite has posed an attacking threat and has popped up with some important goals.
Given the nod against China, he provided a physical presence up top, kept the Chinese defenders occupied and was on hand to open the scoring against the run of play.
That’s now five goals for Duke in this World Cup qualifying campaign, despite the majority of his appearances coming as an impact sub.
Socceroos fans can justifiably feel a little hard done by tonight.
When a handball decision doesn’t even draw the attention of opposition players, you know it’s a tight one and even upon consultation with the VAR footage, it remains debatable as to whether the Jeggo’s offence warranted the penalty decision…
A bitter pill to swallow for all involved and will ensure VAR remains as unpopular as ever amongst football fans.
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
Since the end of their historic undefeated run came to an end against Japan, the Socceroos have looked a bit disjointed and uninspired.
When things aren’t going their way, they have begun to throw the ball forward with the expectation that their wingers will create an opportunity out wide, relying on the individual pace and skill of the likes of Boyle and Mabil to create something out of nothing.
There are issues in the midfield too. Ajdin Hrustic has emerged as a wonderful talent for club and country and has rightfully earned plaudits for his skills and creativity.
In open play, there are few better with the ball at his feet, however, he has demonstrated in the last few games that under pressure from an intense press (Japan and Saudi Arabia) or up against a more experienced and organised defence (The Green Falcons and to a lesser extent, China), he can struggle to be as progressive.
Arnold and his staff have until late January to work out how to get the Socceroos firing on all cylinders again, something that should hopefully be helped by the return of the A-League Men this week, or Australia could risk throwing away the superb start to the campaign they had enjoyed in 2021.
Asian Qualifiers, Sarjah Stadium
CHINA 1 (Wu Lei 70′)
AUSTRALIA 1 (Duke 38′)
Image source: Socceroos