The dream of a fifth-straight World Cup remains alive for the Socceroos.
Despite the foibles that have come to define the team in recent years resurfacing across a frustrating opening hour, Australia downed the United Arab Emirates by 2-1 in an AFC playoff on Wednesday morning. Now, Australia's hopes of joining France, Denmark, and Tunisia in Group D of the 2022 FIFA World Cup will now come down to an intercontinental playoff against Peru next Tuesday.
Dragged back to equilibrium by the UAE's Caio Canedo just three minutes after Jackson Irvine's 54th-minute opener at the Al-Rayyan Stadium in Doha, Ajdin Hrustic's 84th-minute volley, with a healthy deflection off defender Ali Salmeen, spared coach Graham Arnold's side the drama of extra time and potential penalties.
The 25-year-old Hrustic once again came up trumps for his nation when they needed him.
"I hit it quite good," Hrustic said. "I think if it didn't hit the UAE player it would've still gone in. Luck was on our side but we deserved it, to be honest."
Alongside Scottish-born winger Martin Boyle, the new pride of Dandenong was the standout for the Australians as they set up a date with La Blanquirroja. As fatigue began to set in for both sides, the tension ratcheted higher, and a touch of chaos began to seep into the final half hour. But it was the pair's ability to combine in threatening areas, something they weren't able to do in the sixty minutes prior, that provided the Australians with the impetus to finish over the top of their foes as the game opened up.
Four minutes prior to his eventual winner, Hrustic had linked with Boyle and substitute Jamie Maclaren to produce a series of passes that, for the first time that evening, opened up the Emirati defence through the middle, allowing the Melbourne City marksman to fire off a shot that forced Khalid Eisa to make a sharp save.
Alongside Tom Rogic, who pulled out of the Socceroos squad for this window citing personal reasons, Hrustic has taken on an oversized role as a creative fulcrum for his side during this current cycle -- a role magnified even more so by the absence of figures such as Adam Taggart and Denis Genreau due to injury and coaching decisions. At times, this has led to frustration on his part, left on an island in a crucial fixture against Japan at Stadium Australia, and growing so perturbed by the end of the game that he booted a ball into the stands at its conclusion.
And across the opening hour of Wednesday's contest, one would have been forgiven for believing that yet another frustrating night was on the cards for Hrustic and the Socceroos. While the result in these contexts is always the most important thing, Arnold's side's play bore all the hallmarks and fallibility that have come to define the Socceroos across this qualification cycle. To expect otherwise, at this point, would be an unrealistic hope, but it crystalizes what will have to go right for the side if they are to have any hope of downing the Peruvians.
As befitting the occasion, they had -- to use the phrasing their coach so often falls back on -- started the contest with "great energy." Boyle, now playing his club football in Saudi Arabia, demonstrated an early flash of dazzle by rounding a series of defenders before being dispossessed by a last-ditch tackle as he turned to drive into the area. But as is "expected," to borrow another Arnoldism, this early burst of energy quickly wore away and was replaced by the Socceroos that fans have come to know (and definitely not love) across their efforts to secure qualification for a fifth-straight World Cup.
In extended periods of possession, a yawning chasm soon emerged in the midfield of Arnold's side -- vast swathes of space in the middle of the pitch left vacant as the back four -- Aaron Mooy occasionally meandering back slowly to add some variety -- played passes from left, to right, and back left again before eventually launching a long ball forward that led to very little. Deployed as more advanced midfielders, Hrustić and Irvine were frequently forced to drop deep in order to see any of the ball, somewhat defeating the point of their advanced starting positions.
There was one moment just prior to the half an hour mark, in particular, that encapsulated these struggles. Retaining possession with the Emirati defence set in front of them, the Socceroo back-four passed the ball one way and then the other without making any attempts to play forward.
In front of them, Mooy ambled around nonchalantly without presenting much of anything in the way of effort to present in a position that would subsequently allow him to advance his side's field possession. In the end, a pass was forced out wide to Irvine's move to drop deep and onto the left flank. Under pressure and his options limited, the St. Pauli man promptly lost the ball and the Emiratis subsequently advanced forward and won a free kick in a dangerous area.
The Socceroos failed to record a shot on target by the time the first half ended, and Mooy and the more advanced Hrustić might have needed reintroduction to each other in the dressing room, such was their lack of connection across the midfield.
Nonetheless, it does take two to tango, and for all the issues that can be taken with the Socceroos' play across the opening stages, the Emiratis were hardly a beacon of inspiring football that would suggest they were hard done by the 2-1 score line. If anything, for all the issues to be taken with the Australian's conservatism or entropy in possession, it can be argued that their foes were even worse in this regard.
Outside of Harib Al-Maazmi, coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena's side showed little appetite for taking it to their foes, which was made even more perplexing as a makeshift backline featuring three irregulars in the form of Bailey Wright, Kye Rowles, and Nathaniel Atkinson -- the latter two playing just their second-ever senior internationals -- repeatedly struggled to contain the Emiratis 19-year-old left-winger.
Getting to the byline before driving inside and forcing Mat Ryan into a reaction save from an acute angle, Al-Maazmi produced the best chance of the half and should attract overseas interest based on his performance. Conversely, ruled out through injury in the hours leading into the fixture, the health of centre-back Trent Sainsbury will no doubt be a key storyline in the coming days.
But such was either reluctance or inability of the Emiratis to take it up to a Socceroos side seemingly ripe for the taking, it can't be said that, on the balance of play, the Australians didn't deserve their win. Particularly as the game wore on, they created more and better chances than their foes and, yes, to fall back on another Arnoldism, seemed to be playing with great belief before their late winner.
"I was probably 50% happy with our team," Arnold said. "There's a lot of improvement still. If I went into the dressing room and asked all the players if they've got some percentage of improvement in them, I think all of them would say yes.
"So that's what we need. We need them all to play a better game against Peru."
But ultimately, that Hrustic's name that will make the headlines across Australia on Wednesday morning, given his play in both this fixture and more broadly, is a due reward. His willingness to let loose with his wicked left-footed volley with just minutes remaining is something that few of his contemporaries would likely attempt, let alone do so with the technique required to send it towards the target with such malice.
There shouldn't have been any doubt before but, if there was, it should now be clear that the attacker, who left Australia at 14 years old to chase his European footballing dreams, is now his nation's most important player.