The Socceroos ended the third round of World Cup 2022 qualifying in lacklustre style, losing 1-0 to Saudi Arabia in Jeddah.
Salem Al-Dawsari’s second half penalty was enough to consign Graham Arnold and his team to back-to-back defeats for the first time since January 2019.
Martin Boyle had a goal disallowed for offside before half time, a decision that was upheld despite a five minute consultation with VAR.
Mathew Ryan was called into action late in the second half, pulling off a number of spectacular saves to prevent further damage, but at the other end Australia failed to muster much in response to going behind.
The result has no bearing on the immediate futures of either team, with Saudi Arabia already qualified for the World Cup, whilst Australia’s defeat to Japan last Thursday means they will face the United Arab Emirates in a play-off to stay in contention for qualification.
Make no mistake, Saudi Arabia never got out of second gear all match. They were remarkably untroubled and worryingly comfortable all match, and after taking the lead never looked in danger of losing it.
Australia’s only meaningful attacks came early in the first half. Awer Mabil should have scored from the edge of the six yard box, but poked the ball wide, whilst Boyle failed to find the target with a low shot across Mohamed Al-Owais in the home team’s goal.
Mabil’s speculative shot from wide and outside of the penalty area brought a save out of Al-Owais at least, but beyond that, the Socceroos offered very little threat, despite ending the match with four forwards on the pitch.
Saudi Arabia’s ability to take any pace out of the game with lengthy spells of ball possession killed any threat Australia could pose.
Australia looked out of ideas and altogether unbothered about chasing the game, after going behind, and an inability to break teams down to get a result is ultimately why the Green & Gold will have to do it the hard way in order to reach Qatar.
MAT RYAN BOUNCES BACK
One player who did impress for Australia was Mathew Ryan, who was called into action on a number of occasions in the second half to keep the score at 1-0.
He came off his line smartly to deny Firas Al-Buraikan, who had found himself all alone in the penalty area.
An athletic and spectacular double save also prevented Al-Dawsari from doubling his tally for the game.
A stalwart of the national team over the past eight years, Ryan’s performance silenced any possible doubts following his part in the concession of Japan’s second goal last week.
DEFENSIVE FRAILTIES MUST BE SORTED OUT
The quest to replace the Harry Souttar-sized hole in Australia’s defence is a puzzle Arnold has so far failed to solve.
Today, Gianni Stensness was tasked with filling in at centre-back, and despite using his physicality to good effect in the Japan game, the former Central Coast Mariners man was caught out of shape too often, with the Saudi Arabian forwards able to exploit the gaps that opened up.
James Jeggo also struggled again today. On top of giving away the penalty, he failed to adequately protect the defence, with Ajdin Hrustic often having to track back and cover for him, minimizing the effect Australia’s most creative player could have on the game.
With two huge qualification play-offs standing between Australia and the World Cup, a watertight defence is of absolute importance, given the precarious, knife-edge situation Arnold’s side find itself teetering on.