Will a draw be good enough again Saudi Arabia tomorrow night? In short, no.
Australia’s qualifying group for Russia 2018 is perilously close – not that there is much of a surprise in that. Any group containing Japan will likely have the Samurai Blue occupying one of the automatic qualifying spots, hence a mad scramble ensues for the other one.
Japan have qualified for the last five cups and don’t appear likely to miss out this time round – not that Australia would be conceding defeat and assuming Japan will nab top spot. The Socceroos sit in a strong position to take the top rung, with the clash between the two rivals on 11 October looming as a potential tipping point.
However, the sheer numbers tell us that if Japan are locked-in, we need to be clinical in dealing with the remainder of the group. So far this has been anything but the case.
I still wake at night with flashbacks of the awful night against Thailand, when the Aussies were beaten soundly on the park and walked away with a somewhat fortuitous point.
A subsequent draw against Iraq and an earlier one against the Saudis has seen the national team slip to third in the group, three points off equal leaders Japan and Saudi Arabia with an unimpressive goal difference.
In truly romantic style the top three teams face off over the last rounds of qualifying.
Whichever way you look at it these are two tough games for the three squads searching for automatic qualification.
Aside from the triangular clashes between the top three, each team also has an additional match-up, which will be vital in keeping momentum on their side. Japan face Iraq on 13 June and the Saudis take on the UAE on 29 August.
Both games are more than winnable and make Australia’s clash against Thailand potentially all the more vital.
That encounter on 5 September could be either a moment in time when the Socceroos and the nation breathe a collective sigh of relief and start booking tickets to Russia or sadly a meaningless encounter if the next two matches provide nightmarish results for Ange Postecoglou’s men.
If all this doesn’t reiterate the blunt answer in the first line of this piece, I don’t know what will. It is an answer that needs to be that blunt.
A draw might keep things interesting, yet if the Green Falcons take the full three points against UAE in late August, just one take-home point on Thursday against the men in green might leave us forlorn.
A win against Japan becomes mandatory and, quite frankly, that is not something of which we can ever be certain. If the Japanese sense any chance to end our qualifying dream, they will do everything within their power to achieve it.
The Saudis could take the same approach on Thursday – they could sit deep and make us come at them with the break, providing their main chance to strike. The challenge to break them down will be considerable.
How Postecoglou approaches Thursday will be interesting. Much was made of structural changes last time round against UAE, with the 3-4-3 approach making for a few hairy moments.
The coach’s selection choices with Massimo Luongo, Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic available will also throw up much debate. Does Postecoglou go for the tried and tested and recall his warriors who have done it before and come off excellent football in their recently completed international leagues? Or does he do what he has done before and stick with a Jackson Irvine-type and back the in-form incumbent?
I hope Postecoglou stands by his structural vision and backs the men he believes are the best cattle for the task at hand. As a man who has shaped his career through confidence, strength of character and unwavering belief, the mentor has been right more often than not.
I’ll never forget his comment prior to the 2015 Asian Cup. He stated that he wasn’t too fussed about comments made about his team and their performance so long as people stood by those comments after the story had been written.
I remember thinking at the time, “What story? Does he know something we don’t?”. Well, the rest became history, almost as though Postecoglou saw it all unfolding well in advance.
It was as though his use of enormous numbers of players in the year leading up to the tournament and some poor performances along the way were part of the masterplan – a plan that only he saw.
We now stand at another crossroad in the reign of the man from South Melbourne, and there is very little wriggle room in this one.
A draw will not cut it, and a loss would be fatal. A win will at least set up a few more months of uncertainty.
As the winter weather sets in throughout much of the nation, the scarves will be out at the Adelaide Oval, which will provide the amphitheatre for our most important international match since victory over South Korea in the Asian Cup final.
With the reign of Postecoglou seemingly nearing an end, the landing of one last blow, born of belief, planning and strategy, would befit the man who has done so much for Australian football over much of his life.
To qualify and see the Socceroos competing in a less stressful group than the one they faced four years ago would be a treat, and the opportunity to make that a reality starts right here.
The only trouble is that a draw on Thursday just won’t be good enough.