As the Socceroos’ World Cup qualifying campaign heads into a pivotal 24-hour period, coach Graham Arnold is refusing to focus on anything but beating next opponents Oman. A win in Muscat on Tuesday (Wednesday 3am AEDT) could propel Arnold’s team back into one of the two automatic qualifying spots in Group B.
Japan are hosting first-placed Saudi Arabia at Saitama a few hours before the Socceroos game and if the second-placed Samurai Blue slip up against the group leaders it will open the door for Australia to jump over their rivals.
While it could give Arnold’s team an edge heading into the final two matches of qualification against Japan and then Saudi Arabia, the 58-year-old knows getting the job done against fourth-placed Oman is the immediate priority.
“The last three games us, Japan and Saudi … all of us have to play against each other and we both have one other team to play,” Arnold said. “There’s no use thinking about Japan or Saudi at the moment.
“It’s all about playing Oman and beating Oman and then getting ready for that next camp, next Fifa window, against Japan and Saudi.”
Arnold will return to the touchline after being forced to watch last week’s 4-0 win over group minnows Vietnam from a Melbourne hotel room after testing positive to Covid-19.
That game featured a virtuoso performance from Celtic star Tom Rogic, who scored one goal and set up another for Jamie Maclaren, before Craig Goodwin and Riley McGree both came off the bench to score their first goals in Socceroos’ colours.
Arnold is yet to decide whether he will stick with the same forward lineup that started against Vietnam, especially with Adjin Hrustic joining the squad in Oman after missing the trip to Melbourne due to suspension.
One change that is almost certain to happen is the return of Aziz Behich after the left-back was stranded in Turkey by a snowstorm ahead of the Vietnam game.
That allowed Joel King to make his debut but after he impressed in that experience and subsequently confirmed a move to Danish Superliga club Odense BK, Arnold is leaning towards starting Behich against Oman.
“He [King] has had a really big week emotionally and you can just see a little bit in his eyes he seems pretty fatigued,” Arnold said. “He had a great debut. I’ve never seen probably a more mature debut from a young kid in my life where it’s a must-win World Cup qualifier.
“Don’t get me wrong, he’s in good shape, but emotionally he’s gone through a lot in the last week and it’s great to have Aziz back.”