The Socceroos are up and running!
Graham Arnold’s side strode past Kuwait in sweltering conditions in the Gulf as they ran out 3-0 winners, with all of the goals coming in the first half.
A double from captain-for-the-day Mathew Leckie got the Aussies going before Aaron Mooy reminded everyone of his class with a pinpoint curler which nestled into the top corner to round out the win.
Here are five key talking points as the Road to Qatar got underway…
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Goals scored, but scoring woes remain
Coming into the match, the Socceroos had not found the back of the net in 300 minutes. Not many would have picked Mathew Leckie, more used to calamities in front of goal than clinical strikes, as the man to break that drought.
But break it he did, fortuitously it must be said, after just six minutes. And it was Leckie again who doubled the advantage on the half-hour mark, this time showing an alertness and poaching nous to rival any goalscorer around the world.
His 11 goals mean he is easily the leading scorer in the Socceroos squad – Mooy’s tally of six after his goal against Kuwait puts him in second, alongside the unused substitute Massimo Luongo.
As happy as we are to see the winger net his first brace in 18 months, there remains a massive concern over the goalscoring ability of this squad – and over the No.9 position.
Adam Taggart, whose 16 goals in 23 appearances for South Korea’s Suwon Bluewings has him in unstoppable form, missed two golden opportunities against Kuwait.
Taggart has three goals in nine Socceroos caps. The man who replaced him in the second half, Apostolos Giannou, has two goals in 11 caps. Tomi Juric, left out of this squad but certainly in consideration, has eight goals in 41 national appearances.
The Socceroos upcoming match against Nepal (October 10, Canberra) could be the perfect opportunity for one of those to improve on those statistics though and really make their mark. Fingers crossed.
What now for Milligan?
Mark Milligan was almost an automatic pick for captain after the retirements of Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak following the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Milligan is the Socceroos’ most experienced player, the 34-year-old having made 79 appearances for the national team since debuting in 2006. That puts him equal ninth on the all-time Aussie appearances list, equal with Mile Jedinak and one cap behind Luke Wilkshere.
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But he was ruled out of the match due to a minor leg injury, handing Mathew Leckie the captain’s armband and Milos Degenek the starting berth in central defence alongside Trent Sainsbury.
Arnold last week praised Milligan’s leadership, saying: “Mark’s a great leader, a great captain, he’s well respected by the players but the most important thing is he’s fit, he’s playing every week and he’s playing well.”
But it’s unclear how long Milligan can – or should – feature in the national team set-up. Certainly he won’t be needed in Qatar at the ripe age of 37.
Arnold said: “Over the past years we’ve lost players to retirement and Mark is fully committed to us. It’s one step at a time.”
But consider this: Mat Ryan now has 56 appearances for Australia (as many as Graham Arnold himself made). Leckie has 62. Robbie Kruse is still in contention to add to his 75 caps. The Socceroos don’t lack in leaders, and the performances of Sainsbury and Degenek should be enough to make them the first-choice pairing even if Milligan is fit.
When Bailey Wright returns from injury he’ll be challenging for a centre-back spot too, and Milligan’s late replacement in Thomas Deng is a future lock for the Roos.
One step at a time it may be – but just how many steps does Milligan have left?
The Mooy magic is back
It was exactly the kind of performance Australian fans had been desperate to see from Aaron Mooy.
Magisterial in the midfield, he delivered perfectly-weighted passes time and again, and with both feet.
He was unflappable with the ball in his control, seemingly unbothered by the harrying Kuwaiti defenders.
Two well-aimed crosses from corners directly led to Leckie’s brace, a reminder of the threat he poses with a stationary ball.
Then there was the goal. His first since 2016, and his sixth in 40 Socceroos appearances. Drought over.
If his Brighton and Hove Albion manager wasn’t watching, he’ll want to go back and review this one in full.
It’s only a matter of time before Mooy is a regular fixture in their Premier League side, just as he is now undoubtedly the lynchpin of the Australian midfield.
Speaking of Mooy in the middle, Graham Arnold has a very welcome selection puzzle on his hands when it comes to the centre of the park.
Jackson Irvine was thoroughly impressive – excusing his inability to finish given multiple chances – while James Jeggo did exactly what was asked of him.
Jeggo lined up alongside Mooy in a two-man midfield base in the first half, with Irvine higher up. Mooy orchestrated the play, Jeggo was a defensive workhorse, and Irvine used his physical presence and ability on the ball to set up others.
Mooy was then moved forward in the second half, with Irvine shifted into a more defensive midfield role alongside Jeggo.
With defenders tiring and space opening up, Mooy’s ability to play incisive passes through the backline was seen as a better tactical option.
It almost paid off when he played an incisive ball through to Awer Mabil just minutes after the flashy winger emerged off the bench.
Mabil could well have scored then, and could have scored again in the dying minutes when Mooy played him through with another pinpoint delivery, this time from deeper.
Arnold showed good tactical awareness to make the swap, and it should have been better rewarded. But that’s not the only change Arnold will be considering in midfield.
Mustafa Amini was unusually quiet in his short appearance off the bench, but has shown strong signs for Danish club AGF so far this season.
Massimo Luongo was left on the bench alongside Ajdin Hrustic (one cap), the latter seen as an exciting prospect and in impeccable form in the Netherlands. Add in Daniel Arzani and Tom Rogic –when the pair return from injury – and Arnold has plenty of options for experimentation on the long road to World Cup qualification.
Mixed results for fresh faces
Ahead of this match, much was made of the significant squad refresh following the 2018 World Cup.
The 23-man squad featured a dozen players with 10 caps or less – 13 if you include the late call-up for Thomas Deng as Mark Milligan’s injury replacement.
Of those dozen, seven took to the field against Kuwait, with four starting.
One was very good: Jeggo. Technically not as skilled as Mooy or Irvine, his defensive efforts were almost valuable to the Socceroos’ play.
Two were solid: Rhyan Grant at fullback and Brandon Borrello on the wing both put in meritable showings.
One was, well, unimpressive. That would be Taggart, who failed to replicate his domestic form on the international stage.
What those four shared in common was their workrate, which could not be faulted. The same goes for the inexperienced substitutes Amini, Mabil and Apostolos Giannou.
Patience is needed, as is a healthy dose of perspective. This will be a long campaign. Every cap, every international minute is valuable for players new to the stage. But each one of the latest crop of Socceroos proved their attitude was right, even if their execution faltered.