Three Burning Questions: Socceroos v Syria

by Ben Somerford on Jan 14, 2019

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The Socceroos’ final 2019 Asian Cup group game against Syria has plenty of unknowns, but what we do know is our title defence is on the line.

Expectations remain high that Australia will do what’s required, with a draw enough to secure our passage into the last 16, against a Syrian side who’ve just had coach Bernd Stange sacked.

The tumult of that situation means the Socceroos don’t really know what to expect from their opponents but, given Australia’s pedigree, coach Graham Arnold will be determined to get his own house in order rather than worry about the opposition.

Of course, lose and Australia will likely be eliminated, so there’s no room for error.

How will Syria react?
We all remember Syria from the 2018 World Cup qualifying play-offs when they came within a bee’s proverbial of knocking us out of the race to Russia with an extra-time free-kick which hit the post.

It’s worth remembering the first leg of that tie was played in neutral Malaysia rather than the Middle East, where we’ve had issues against West Asian teams since entering the AFC, so this is a tough fixture but also one full of uncertainty due to Syria’s tumultuous Asian Cup so far, with more coaches sacked than wins or goals scored combined for Qasioun Nosour.

Ex-Perth Glory coach Stange’s replacement in charge of Syria is Fajr Ibrahim who has led the side three times previously, so it’s not a role foreign to him at all. Ibrahim is well known in his homeland too, as an ex-Syria international, and he’ll have rapport with his players.

We know, from our play-offs’ experience, that Syria have the talent at their disposal to worry Australia. The jury is out on if they’ll be organised and focused in time for Tuesday’s clash amid the chaos.

How to replace Trent Sainsbury?
Sainsbury’s one-game suspension leaves Graham Arnold with a pickle. Mark Milligan is the obvious replacement for Sainsbury at centre-back, but moving him into defence forces a re-shuffle. And Milligan was immense in midfield against Palestine. You don’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul.

The alternative is Arnold retaining Milligan in midfield and putting faith in Matt Jurman to step up in the heart of defence. Across Arnold’s six matches in charge, he’s only given Jurman 12 minutes so it would take a leap of faith. It’s easy to forget Jurman has only played six caps in his short international career despite being 29, so he’s relatively inexperienced at this level.

It’s more likely Arnold will move Milligan into defence, drafting in Massimo Luongo in midfield, who has been stiff to miss out in recent times, dropped for the Palestine match for the impressive Jackson Irvine. Luongo was the Asian Cup MVP four years ago in a more advanced role but could certainly play a more defensive role as he does regularly at club level for QPR.

Who next?
Without wanting to get ahead of ourselves, any result will confirm Australia as group runners-up, meaning we’ll face whomever finishes second in Group F. That’ll be either Japan or Uzbekistan.

The Blue Samurai currently occupy second spot and face the Uzbeks in their final group game with both already assured of a place in the knockouts. The problem is Japan are behind Uzbekistan on goal difference, so a draw will be enough for the White Wolves to top the group and set up an enthralling last 16 clash between the past two Asian champions.

For all the pre-tournament talk about a potential quarter-final match-up with Japan if both sides topped their groups, this scenario throws a spanner in the works.