Australia's Asian Cup credentials face first real test in quarter-finals

AFP , Monday 29 Jan 2024

Australia's Asian Cup title credentials and stingy defence will be properly put to the test for the first time in Qatar when they face Saudi Arabia or South Korea in the quarter-finals.

Australia s defender #19 Harry Souttar celebrates scoring his team s fourth goal during the Qatar 2023 AFC Asian Cup football match between Australia and Indonesia at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha on January 28, 2024. AFP

The Socceroos' next opponents will be confirmed on Tuesday when Roberto Mancini's Saudi Arabia and Jurgen Klinsmann's South Korea meet in the last 16.

Whoever wins, Australia will face a step-up from anything they have faced so far at the tournament.

The bedrock of their pursuit of a second Asian title -- they won it on home soil in 2015 -- has been a miserly defence that has conceded one goal in four matches.

"Clean sheets win tournaments," coach Graham Arnold said after defeating Syria 1-0 in the group phase.

The Socceroos reached the quarter-finals on Sunday with a 4-0 victory over an Indonesia side ranked 121 places below them.

Australia were deserved and ultimately comfortable winners against the lowest-ranked team left at the tournament, but the one-sided scoreline flattered them.

Arnold took Australia to the last 16 of the Qatar 2022 World Cup before giving eventual champions Argentina and Lionel Messi a fright in a 2-1 defeat.

The run to the knockout rounds -- equalling their best performance at a World Cup -- was hailed at home as a major success.

At the Asian Cup however they are expected to challenge for the title against far more moderate opposition, and preferably with more attacking verve than they have displayed so far.

Prior to the Indonesia game, Australia had scored four times in three games.

The combative Arnold agrees his team need to be better offensively, especially individually, but feels they have been unfairly characterised as overly defensive.

"I think back in Australia they'd rather see you lose 1-0 than keep a clean sheet," he said.

- 'Most important' -

Australia conjured up one shot on target in beating Syria and even though they hit four against Indonesia, the first was an own goal and they had four shots on target all game.

Arnold might argue that shows a clinical edge.

Harry Souttar, the towering central defender, got the fourth with a header and is arguably Australia's biggest goal threat, namely from set-pieces.

His record is a remarkable one and more akin to a forward -- 11 goals in little over 20 appearances.

The winger Martin Boyle, who like Souttar was born in Aberdeen in Scotland, scored the second with a diving header and was on script afterwards with his manager beside him.

"Clean sheets is the most important thing," he said.

"As forward players you know you can really rely on that, it gives us the freedom up front not to be scared to make mistakes when you know you have that defensive structure behind you."

If fit, the 33-year-old Mitchell Duke, who averages one in three at international level and carries a physical presence, will spearhead the attack in the last eight.

He is Arnold's first-choice centre-forward but missed the 1-1 draw with Uzbekistan with a hamstring niggle and came on in the second half against Indonesia. He is yet to score in Qatar.

In his absence, Arnold gave a first international start to the raw Kusini Yengi against Uzbekistan and tried out the 36-year-old Uruguay-born Bruno Fornaroli for Indonesia.

Both ran willingly but failed to muster a shot on target between them and neither has ever scored an international goal.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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