Socceroos in sticky spot and nerve-shredding nights await

Staying unbeaten and picking up points in every game is all well and good, but not very helpful when all you do is draw — especially while your key opponents are winning.

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Six games down in the 10 match World Cup qualifying tournament and Australia is still in the hunt, but Ange Postecoglou and his team will be starting to feel the pressure after their 1-1 draw against Iraq in Tehran overnight.

The Socceroos were, in the end, quite fortunate to cling on for a draw having taken a first half lead with a rare international goal from Matthew Leckie.

Admittedly this was a match played on a cabbage patch pitch in muddy conditions more reminiscent of the lower divisions in England than for a World Cup qualifier, but that in theory should have suited the Socceroos, many of whose starting line do, in fact, play in The Championship, or have experienced life in England’s lower leagues earlier in their career.

Australia is now in tricky spot in the battle for a guaranteed place in the World Cup finals in Russia.

Saudi Arabia, who are flying, are three points clear on 13 points having won 3-0 in Thailand (where Australia could only draw last November), while Japan are second, also on 13 points, following their 2-0 win in the United Arab Emirates.

The best that can be said at the moment is that Australia’s destiny still lies in its own hands, with three of its final four matches at home with the only test on the road a difficult trip to Tokyo. But they wouldn’t want to be facing Thailand in their final match in September knowing that they simply had to win to make it to Russia.

Tuesday night’s game in Sydney against the UAE looms as a must win affair now. The Emiratis are a point behind the Socceroos and would know that defeat would surely spell the end of their World Cup ambitions.

Postecoglou experimented with a changed line up and different structure for the Iraq game, shifting to a back three with four in midfield and Jackson Irvine, given a chance from the start,.

His selection favoured men who are playing regularly – something that no-one can really complain about – and certainly Irvine, who has been an excellent contributor to a struggling Burton team in the Championship, showed that he has plenty to offer with his energy, competitiveness and ability to pop up in threatening areas.

Mitch Langerak, who has been between the posts for Stuttgart while erstwhile number one Mat Ryan has been kicking his heels for much of the season on Valencia’s bench, was also given an opportunity and he is another who proved that he is certainly good enough to retain a place in the starting line up, making a handful of critical saves particularly as Iraq threw the kitchen sink at Australia in a desperate second half.

Australia might be champions of Asia, but they don’t look it right now.

All too often in this game passes were overhit, underhit or missed their target or players simply miscontrolled the ball as possession was surrendered too easily.

Once more the Socceroos looked toothless in front of goal. Leckie’s excellent header came from a Mooy corner – a set piece – while the previous three goals the national team had scored had come from the penalty spot courtesy of Mile Jedinak against Thailand and Japan. Its a legitimate question to ask how or when they will score from open play.

Did the switch to a new system hinder them? They are all professionals, the best the country has to choose from, so they should be able to cope with a change of set up with a minimum of fuss.

And as the coach pointed out after the game, a lot of the time they were dealing with high balls as Iraq went route one in search of a direct path to goal: that is a relatively unsophisticated strategy and centre backs should be able to contest aerial battles whether they are playing in a back three or four.

The gap has been closing for years. Australia no longer has the Premier League stars it once had, nor does it have the intimidatory power those big names once gave it when they ran out against Asian teams.

There is plenty of work to be done. Their destiny lies in their own hands, but it its by no means a done deal….