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The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Socceroos v Syria

by Ben Somerford on Jan 16, 2019

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Australia are into the 2019 Asian Cup knockouts although we were made to sweat all the way following a last-gasp 3-2 win over Syria on Wednesday morning.

The Socceroos will have to wait to find out if we face Uzbekistan or Japan in the last 16 on Monday night, but neither really appeal.

Given Group B winners Jordan will play either Bahrain, Vietnam or Yemen, it’s easy to recognise how significant dropping that first game could be in hindsight.

But we shouldn’t dwell on the possible negatives. If Japan do end up topping their group, our runners-up finish may mean we avoid meeting them in the quarter-finals, should we be lucky enough to get that far.

On to the game and it was highly entertaining but leaves no one feeling comfortable about our Asian Cup defence, with some worrying signs in defence and attack.

The Good
Awer Mabil continues to thrive at international level with his fourth goal in his seventh appearance in green and gold. It was a special strike on his left foot too, but he displayed his naivety only 30 seconds later when he over-committed in defence allowing the opening for Syria’s immediate equaliser.

Chris Ikonomidis and Tom Rogic both grabbed a goal and an assist. Neither dominated the match but there were patches where their quality oozed. Ikonomidis’ willingness to get on the ball and take on the opposition is refreshing, albeit frustrating at times. But that’s what happens when you take a risk; it’s not guaranteed to always work.

It’s worth asking if Mathew Leckie regains fitness, whose spot in the starting XI he’d actually take? It’d be hard to drop either Mabil or Ikonomidis on current form. It’s a good problem to have for coach Graham Arnold.

Australia finished with three goals against Syria and six in their past two matches, helping ease some of the goal scoring concerns which have been the key topic of water cooler conversations about the Socceroos for the past six months. But cracking tougher opposition defences awaits us in the knockouts.

The Bad
Jamie Maclaren’s misfiring finishing is a major concern. Sure, he scored a key goal against Palestine but a swallow doesn’t make a summer.

Maclaren had numerous chances against Syria and spurned them all, including an early gilt-edged close-range header, as well as a one-on-one opportunity when he sneaked inside the box unmarked. There was a second-half chance when he was flagged for offside, but even then his effort was weak and a sign of a striker low on confidence.

This comes as no surprise to Arnold as Maclaren’s form at club level has been below par this season, with Hibernian subsequently chasing fresh forward options in January, although we were all hoping that goal against Palestine might be the catalyst for a change in fortunes.

The reality is the Socceroos cannot keep seeing good chances created and spurned by Maclaren, particularly as we enter the pointy end of the competition. Apostolos Giannou showed will and ability off the bench against Syria and also scored in a brief cameo against Palestine. He is a real option to start in the last 16. Once fit, could Leckie be an option to play alone up front?

The Ugly
The performance by Mexican referee Cesar Ramos and his assistants was not up to the standard required at a major continental showpiece event and is a blight on the AFC.

Replays showed the decision to award the penalty for Syria’s second equalising goal was a major mistake, with two Syria players appearing to collide off the ball, rather than any contact with any Australians. The linesman seemed to make the call from 30-40 metres away, with Ramos – who was closer to the action but not watching the ‘incident’ - following his lead.

Some will say justice was served as Ramos missed a stonewall penalty when Mark Milligan miscontrolled and handballed inside the box midway through the second half. There were further poor decisions by the officials, although the lack of relevant replays from the increasingly amateur TV broadcast feed arguably helped them avoid further scrutiny.

Fox Sports, who are doing a great job with their commentary and analysis, must be scratching their heads at how whomever (this scribe has been unable to ascertain who the central company is) is providing the feed to national broadcasters actually got the gig. It’s woefully below standard.