The Socceroos aren’t the only ‘favourite’ battling their way through the Asian Cup… It’s a bloody hard tournament
In the course of successfully advancing to the quarter-finals of the 2023 Asian Cup, the Socceroos have once again been adjudged by many to have been somewhere between poor and underwhelming on the road to the final eight.
Short memories, those folks appear to have – as well possessing a mighty narrow pair of goggles that have enabled them to completely ignore the realities of the tournament, the challenge of winning it and the mixed results that played out across the group stages.
People complaining intensely the Socceroos have not created enough chances during the tournament, are converting far too infrequently and don’t look like a team capable of lifting the trophy on February 11 do have a point, yet this also misses two key realities of tournament football.
Firstly, it is bloody hard and compellingly more competitive and desperate than the confederation’s World Cup qualifying matches.
Secondly, despite Australia not having brushed aside opponent after opponent with ease it is important to note that neither have the other teams tipped to be there or thereabouts when the whips are cracking in the semi-finals.
That is what occurs during the Asian Cup. Teams play for their lives, many knowing that the World Cup stage is a little beyond them and that the tournament is the biggest event for them as a sporting nation.
Australia’s history of battling countries like Syria, Jordan and Thailand in hard fought encounters, where the underdogs have consistently lifted, is the perfect example of why the Asian Cup is so much more difficult and challenging to win than some believe.
Despite some of the simple criticism and commentary currently being dished out towards a Socceroo team that’s getting the results without ever really reaching a high gear, the team continues to perform well on the international stage, with the lesser ranked nations desperately keen to knock them off whenever given the chance to do so.
Seemingly overlooked by the critics are the travails of pre-tournament favourites Japan; down 2-1 to Vietnam after 33 minutes in its opening match of the tournament, which proceeded a loss to Iraq and a 3-1 win against Indonesia that qualified them for the knockout phase.
Interestingly, as a third-placed group qualifier, Indonesia’s 4-0 loss to the Socceroos on Sunday night was more comprehensive on the scoreboard than when they met the Japanese, despite Japan dominating consistently in the cut and thrust of the contest in the Matchday 3 encounter.
It would be quite easy to argue the Socceroos have been a little more comfortable across their four matches, with Japan hopeful of an explosion of form from here on in.
I wonder if the Japanese team is experiencing the same scrutiny in their domestic press rooms as the Socceroos appear to be? Perhaps.
Reigning champions Qatar snuck home against Tajikistan in what was a seriously understated performance from them and also went behind early against Palestine yesterday before righting the ship and doing enough for a 2-1 victory.
South Korea drew 2-2 with Jordan and 3-3 with Malaysia during the group stage, with only an earlier win against Bahrain ensuring their place in the final 16.
Saudia Arabia drew 0-0 with Thailand in a shock result and scored in the 96th minute to beat Oman after trailing for 64 minutes on Matchday 1.
Perhaps only Iran could claim to have had plain sailing to this point in the tournament, although a 1-0 win against Hong Kong was also far too close for their liking.
In short, everyone has had their challenges, troubles and battles and despite the Socceroos awaiting Saudi Arabia or South Korea in what will be a blockbuster quarter final encounter, they have looked far better than some pundits would have you believe.
Graham Arnold has tweaked and probed, looking for combinations. Just a goal has been conceded and after what the world saw at the 2022 World Cup, no team will be wanting to face the Aussies as a preference.
Sure, there is a heck of a lot of improvement before we can start to talk about a potential second Asian Cup title, yet things don’t always have to be pretty and confederation play rarely is.
The Socceroos can play better and will. Don’t give up on them just yet.