With the group stages of the 2023 Asian Cup now complete, the Socceroos path to glory is a little clearer.
As is often the case at international cup competitions, the form book has been thrown out of the window in some of the groups.
Who predicted Japan, who had won 10 in a row coming into tournament, losing to Iraq? Or South Korea finishing second to Bahrain in Group D?
By comparison, the Socceroos group campaign has gone relatively smoothly.
Victories over India and Syria were expected but achieved nonetheless, and a 1-1 draw with a dangerous Uzbekistan side secured them top spot in Group B.
The quality of their performances may not have been high, suggesting to many that the Socceroos may struggle against the competition heavyweights as the knockout stages approach, but they have got the job done (so far).
Where do Australia go from here, in a tournament that represents their most realistic chance of silverware?
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Indonesia up next
The benefit of finishing first in their group for the Socceroos was always going to be playing one of the third-place qualifiers in the round of 16, and it will be Indonesia next up for the Aussies.
Despite losses to Japan and Iraq, a slender 1-0 victory over Vietnam last week was enough for the Indonesians to secure third spot in Group D, and one of the four third place qualifying places in the knockout stages.
That is quite an achievement for a team lying 146th in the current FIFA rankings (121 places below Australia), and it is the furthest they have ever gone at an Asian Cup finals in their 5 appearances to date.
Beating the Merah Putih (literally translated as Red and Whites) should not be seen as a foregone conclusion though, with their Korean coach Shin Tae Yong moulding them into a competitive unit since taking over in late 2019.
Nineteen-year-old winger Marselino Ferdinan, who became the youngest player to score for his country back in 2022, may be one for Graham Arnold’s men to keep an eye on. He also scored against Iraq in the group stages and has started every game for his nation so far at this tournament.
McGree & Irvine stand out
However, if Australia are to go deep in this tournament, it will be their own performances that need to improve.
The Socceroos have looked pedestrian in attack at times, and creating goal scoring opportunities has been a problem. One option may be to recall left winger Craig Goodwin, who has been left out of the last two matches in favour of Jordan Bos.
Goodwin’s pinpoint crossing ability has been missed in those laboured performances against Syria and Uzbekistan. Moving the attack minded Bos to left back (where he plays his club football) to accommodate Goodwin against Indonesia may create an attacking spark.
Elsewhere, it’s been midfielders Riley McGree and Jackson Irvine who have stood out for the Aussies so far. McGree’s energy and willingness to drive forward has been a feature of Socceroos performance to date. Coach Arnold must hope that he is now fully fit to start games after easing him in gently on the way back from injury.
Equally important is Irvine, who although not as dominant in open play as McGree, is vital as a goalscoring option. His late runs into the box have brought him two goals already in this tournament, and he will need more if the Aussies are to progress as deep as they intend.
Up front, Mitch Duke’s hamstring strain has created an opportunity to 25-year- old Kusini Yengi, who showed promise against Uzbekistan and created the Socceroos’ only goal in that game.
He is likely to start against Indonesia given Duke’s ongoing injury and could cement his place in the side with another impressive performance.
Quarter final showdown
The problem for Australia if they defeat Indonesia (and they should), is that the route to the final arguably got harder due to those shock results in other groups.
The main outcome of South Korea only finishing second in their group is that they are now on the other side of the draw for the knockout stages, meaning a quarter final showdown with the Socceroos is now possible.
The Koreans have been strangely leaky at the back in this tournament, already conceding six goals in their three games to date despite the presence of Bayern Munich centre back Kim Min-jae.
They do still have a wealth of attacking options though, led by their talismanic captain Son Heung-min.
The Tottenham superstar also has a very capable supporting cast up front, with PSG’s Lee-Kang in scoring three of his nation’s eight goals in the tournament so far.
Before they can focus their attention on Australia, the Koreans will first have to overcome a dangerous Saudi Arabia in a mouth-watering round of sixteen match.
The Saudis will be confident themselves given their current eight match unbeaten run, including their 3 group games. Although scoring hasn’t been as easy for them as for round of 16 opponents, they have only conceded one goal in that unbeaten run under their Italian coach Roberto Mancini.
Whoever triumphs is sure to provide a stern test for Australia.
Looking further ahead, the news gets slightly better.
Japan’s failure to win Group D means the Socceroos now avoid the pre-tournament favourites until the final, although the Japanese will have to get past an impressive Iran and holders Qatar on their side of the draw to get there.
As a result, likely semi-final opponents for Australia if they do progress beyond that challenging last eight match are Iraq, who have already defeated Japan and remain unbeaten.
The next two weeks of competition are sure to hold more surprises as the race for the Asian Cup title hots up. Getting beyond the quarter finals may be the Aussies’ biggest challenge, but a dream run to the final is not out of the question should they manage it.