You could almost hear how sweetly the ball connected with Mousa Al-Taamari’s left boot. A scorching, first-time shot from well outside the area that bulleted past Mat Ryan’s outstretched gloves and into the corner of his goal. The Jordan attacker had been threatening to do it for the previous 17 minutes, at one point dribbling past a few players in one move. Australia’s defense was all at sea, and this friendly appeared to head on a similar path to other recent matches.
But the Socceroos did not hang their heads. Even though they were passive and deeply unconvincing, they had an equalizer before half-time. And after an improved second half, the score in Doha read 2-1, ensuring Australia will carry the confidence of a win into next week’s decisive World Cup qualifying play-off against the United Arab Emirates.
It is not just any win, either – it is Australia’s second from their past eight games. At that strike rate, this should feel encouraging. Except that it doesn’t. Bright spots there were compelling overall, it was not.
The Socceroos have never had a problem with set pieces. Australia did score twice, both times from set pieces. They appear to lack the capacity to create real opportunities from open play, especially against Middle Eastern opposition who, in the past, have proved themselves tough to move.
They also benefited from the VAR’s absence. Moments before his first-half equalizer, Bailey Wright conceded a clear penalty which was not awarded. And Awer Mabil’s acrobatic winner had a whiff of offside, albeit one which would – and should – still advantage the attacker.
For Wright’s part, this was an international recall for the first time since 2019 and came on the back of some happy times at Wembley, where the central defender last month helped Sunderland win their League One play-off final to seal promotion to the Championship.
With 38 minutes played, it was not going well. An ungainly challenge on a Jordan player inside the area should have prompted a spot kick and a would-be second goal for their counterparts. Instead, the play was continued, and shortly after that, Wright was instrumental in Australia drawing level, rising for a free header off Craig Goodwin’s free kick.
Goodwin was one of several fringe players in a starting XI Graham Arnold said was designed to get minutes into the legs of those without recent matches. Another, Aaron Mooy, was clearly out of practice but improved throughout the game – a promising sign given Tom Rogic’s untimely withdrawal from the squad citing personal reasons.
Then Nick D’Agostino led the line, Riley McGree behind him, and Goodwin and Mabil on the wings. Nothing about this looked like a dress rehearsal for the real thing. Even the back four was shaken up, with left-back Jason Davidson starting for the first time since October 2015 (Aziz Behich relieved him at half-time and later became the subject of another, softer penalty appeal) and Kye Rowles making his international debut in central defense.
Several camp latecomers, including Mat Leckie, Martin Boyle, and Adam Taggart, were rested. Other key players, Ajdin Hrustic, Jamie Maclaren, and Jackson Irvine were utilized, as substitutes. There was no sense that this team was finalizing four years’ worth of preparations and that the machine was running as it should. The feeling was that the parts were still being assembled, the trial-and-error tests still being conducted.
Post-match, Arnold was as authentic as we have seen him all campaign. Finally, he dropped the “everything’s great” facade to favor a response commensurate with the performance, acknowledging “there’s still a lot of work to do”.
“What we’ve been driving since we got into camp is about the reaction when you lose the ball,” Arnold said. “I’ve been disappointed over the campaign about the mentality of that, andve been working on it. I was happy tonight with the work rate, the chasing back, and the fighting for the second ball.
“I’ll be honest; I think that’s the first time we’ve come back since I’ve been in charge – when we’ve gone down 1-0 and come back. It was really interesting and good to see the reaction when we went down 1-0 because in the past, in the past few games when we’ve gone down 1-0 or something’s happened, we have fallen apart.”
There might be a hint of self-preservation lurking in those words. It could also be a motivational strategy, one week from the national team’s biggest game of the past four years. Next Wednesday, as they say, the time for the talk will be over.