Socceroos have depth on the wings after Chris Ikonomidis’ display against Palestine, but what to do with Tom Rogic?
Chris Ikonomidis was a breath of fresh air on left flank, and now Australia looks like it has options on the wings. (AP: Nariman El-Mofty)
Things suddenly look a little bit rosier in Graham Arnold’s Socceroos garden after his three changes to the team that lost to Jordan clicked against minnow Palestine.
A 3-0 win for the Socceroos has righted Australia’s listing Asian Cup campaign after an opening 1-0 loss to Jordan put the team’s title defence in serious question.
But against Palestine, a bright performance on the left flank from Chris Ikonomidis appeared to re-energise a team that lacked ideas previously, while Jackson Irvine looked a towering aerial presence in attack and a stable presence in midfield for Australia.
Rhyan Grant, sporting his famously inoffensive hairstyle at right-back, was also quick onto a host of through-balls down the right flank to put in probing crosses.
The obnoxious elephant in the room is the inevitable observation: “It was only Palestine”. But that would disrespect a hard-working team that improved in the second half. What matters is that Australia respected its opponent, and as a result proved to be clinical in the first half and composed in the second to earn victory.
Ikonomidis’ performance on the left flank, featuring a deft touch and eye for searching crosses, would have delighted coach Arnold after a lacklustre showing against Jordan in which Australia’s front three was too narrow, and at a loss for creativity.
Jackson Irvine repeatedly looked a threat in the air against Palestine, particularly during set pieces. (AP: Hassan Ammar)
The winger’s curling, floated cross bisected Palestine’s defence perfectly, finding the onrushing Awer Mabil perfectly as Australia doubled its lead two minutes after Jamie Maclaren’s headed goal.
Now factor in the hopeful returns of the fleet-of-foot Mathew Leckie and wide forward Andrew Nabbout, and suddenly the Socceroos look like they have a depth of options on the flanks.
Shows how much a positive result, even against a relative minnow, can do for perceptions.
Tom Rogic also looked far more interested and mobile against Palestine than he did in the loss to Jordan, pinging in the cross for Maclaren’s opener.
What to do with Rogic against Syria?
But it’s the next match that begs several questions for coach Graham Arnold with his midfield star, who picked up a yellow card against Palestine and now walks a tightrope should he be involved against Syria.
Will Tom Rogic be rested for the Syria match to avoid a possible suspension for the round of 16? (AP: Hassan Ammar)
Pick up another caution, and Rogic will be suspended for the round-of-16 clash, potentially with the runner-up of Group F (likely to be Uzbekistan).
So does Arnold rest Rogic, sporting a broken bone in his hand for good measure, and hope there’s enough juice in the rest of the team’s tank to get the minimum point required against the Red Eagles?
Similarly, Australia will have to put in a collective shift defensively in the next match with Trent Sainsbury absent from duty, having picked up a second yellow card and suspension.
Sainsbury’s partnership with Milos Degenek has shown signs of promise, despite the earlier Jordan defeat, but already that pairing will need to be broken up on Tuesday, with Matt Jurman likely to deputise at centre-back.
It’s a blow for Australia in the leadership category too, with Sainsbury’s calm authority in the backline an asset for the Socceroos that they will need to do without in a crucial fixture.
A reminder of the permutations
The equation for Australia in the final group game is pretty simple: Win or draw, and the Socceroos advance as the second-best team in Group B, behind Jordan.
Regardless of what Jordan does against Palestine, Australia cannot finish in top spot due to head-to-head rankings taking precedence over goal difference.
Trent Sainsbury (right) will be suspended for Australia’s must-not-lose clash with Syria. (AP: Hassan Ammar)
If Australia loses to Syria, Syria would finish on four points in Group B ahead of Australia’s three points, putting Australia third.
With a record number of teams in this year’s Asian Cup, it means it’s actually possible to advance from your group in third spot. But you have to be one of the four best third-placed teams to advance to the last 16.
With three points, and a 3-0 win over Palestine, Australia should theoretically have done enough to claim that spot. We won’t 100 per cent know until the night, or perhaps even after, but if we were to go down this road, it would mean a likely match-up with Asian powerhouse Iran.
So it will be mentally safer for the Socceroos to ignore the third-placed rabbit hole, and focus instead on getting a point (or three) against Syria to make sure.