A first-half goal from Awer Mabil lifted a scratchy Australia to a 1-0 win over New Zealand on Thursday in their farewell fixture ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
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After being jumped on early by the Kiwis, coach Graham Arnold's side took the lead in the 32nd minute when Jackson Irvine forced a high turnover and fed Mabil in a position the winger could cut inside and shoot from. Unlucky to have not opened the scoring after some sloppy moments from the Australian defence, coach Danny Hay's All Whites continued to take it to the Australians and arguably had the best of the game but were ultimately left disappointed.
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1. World Cup squad shapes up
Thursday evening's game was a time to celebrate for the Socceroos. Not only was it the first time they had taken to the park since securing a place in the World Cup, but it was also the only game they would get on home soil before heading to Qatar. Further, the contest was used to commemorate the 100th anniversary of both the Australian and New Zealand national teams: the two squaring off in their first-ever international games in 1922. And thanks to Mabil's goal, the 25,392 fans in attendance at Lang Park -- a bit of a disappointing figure for a World Cup sendoff given the venue holds approximately 52,000 -- were sent home happy. At least with the result.
Nonetheless, with precious little time until Arnold and his side begin their World Cup campaign against France on Nov. 23, every moment that the Socceroos get together in the intervening period will be vital for their preparations. And his thinking surrounding that tournament was perhaps hinted at when the team sheets were delivered and familiar faces dominated. Jason Cummings and Garang Kuol may have dominated headlines heading into the contest, but Arnold was trying to zero in on his starting XI for November.
On the wing, Mabil was preferred over Mat Leckie after starting from the bench against Peru. At right-back, Fran Karacic was preferred over Nathaniel Atkinson after the inverse arrangement was used during the World Cup playoffs. Up top, Mitch Duke made way for a fit Adam Taggart at the tip of the Socceroos spear.
Given Karacic's regular minutes at Brescia compared to Atkinson's sporadic appearances at Hearts thus far, the Croatian-born defender might just have the inside run on a starting spot in Qatar. Ditto for Taggart, who not only brings incorporative skills important for the Socceroos but who has started to hit his stride with J League side Cerezo Osaka while Duke plies his trade a tier below and Jamie Maclaren awaits the start of the A-League Men season.
2. Familiar foibles for the Socceroos
As well as being a cracker of a strike, buried into the bottom corner and giving New Zealand goalkeeper Oliver Sail no chance, Mabil's goal went probably just how Arnold drew it up: a high Socceroo press allowing Irvine to force a turnover and get the ball into his winger with room to cook. As observed by former Socceroo Scott McDonald on the halftime broadcast, though, it was also the first occasion that properly ferocious pressure had been applied, providing a welcome bit of relief after an opening half hour in which the Socceroos' familiar issues in possession were again on show as the Kiwis looked the better of the two sides.
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Outside of Mabil's goal, Australia's possession lacked incisiveness, and their best avenue to the net looked as though it would come not from open play at all but set pieces. Irvine was unable to finish from close range after an Aaron Mooy corner fell to him in the 17th minute and then harshly whistled for a foul that denied a clear goal-scoring opportunity in the 28th minute. In the second half, things opened up a bit more and a greater volume of chances and moments came Australia's way, but that comes with the caveat that the Kiwis had them as well.
None of this should have been surprising for those who had been paying attention on the road to Qatar. For all the excitement of Andrew Redmayne's heroics that earned qualification, it did come in a game in which the Socceroos had only two shots on target, the first of which was delivered in the 82nd minute -- from a set piece. Indeed, the way the Socceroos play under Arnold has become well established at this point, and to expect any major adjustments in the limited time before the World Cup would be folly.
Of course, silver linings. Maybe. Coming up against France and Denmark in their World Cup group, the Socceroos are almost certainly going to find themselves operating as the reactive team in possession come November -- ceding possession, soaking up pressure and looking to capitalise on moments of weakness. And while the shaky moments of their own would inevitably be picked on by those foes, Thursday evening showed that Australia can at least make hay of those opportunities themselves.
3. Still places up for grabs
Given that he has seemingly already been consigned to substitute status at his new LaLiga side Cadiz, Mabil's form heading into this game would have been a concern for Arnold: Was one of his key contributors during qualifying going to be sharp enough to make an impact in Qatar? Well, based on some of the flashes the 27-year-old showed in the first half, not to mention his golazo, it appears that Mabil will still be a part of Arnold's starting plans going forward.
Nonetheless, Thursday's was not the type of performance that those hoping to force their way into the team would have watched with dread. While Arnold's preference for squad continuity, previous contributions in the green and gold and rewarding those who have bought into the culture he has looked to build is obvious, opportunities based on performances should still exist for those on the outside looking in.
Of note, the centre-back, left-back, holding midfielder and No. 9 roles all have clubhouse leaders but are, or at least should be, still unsettled.
Australia: Mat Ryan 7, Aziz Behich 6, Milos Degenek 5, Trent Sainsbury 5, Fran Karacic 6, Ajdin Hrustic 6, Jackson Irvine 7, Aaron Mooy 5, Awer Mabil 7, Adam Taggart 6, Martin Boyle 6
New Zealand: Oliver Sail 7, Liberato Cacace 8, Nando Pijnaker 6, Michael Boxall 6, Dane Ingham 5, Elijah Just 7, Tim Payne 6, Joe Bell 6, Matthew Garbett 6, Chris Wood 7, Andre De Jong 6
Best and worst performers
BEST: Liberato Cacace, New Zealand: Before being forced off with a knock in the 71st minute, the 21-year-old Empoli man took advantage of the opportunity to remind Australian fans of the quality that earned him a move from ALM to Serie A with some audacious passages of play. Would be a certain starter for the Socceroos, who counted Mabil as their best.
WORST: Trent Sainsbury, Australia: He recovered as the game went on and cataclysm would likely have to strike for him to miss selection for the World Cup, but the Socceroos might very well have been 2-0 down inside ten minutes had the Kiwis been able to capitalise on two shaky moments from the veteran. With the Australian centre-back position up in the air, neither he nor Degenek took the role by the scruff of the neck.
Highlights and notable moments
Thursday's contest marked the 100-year centenary of the Socceroos.
A 100-year honours list 💯— Socceroos (@Socceroos) September 22, 2022
All 622 names to have represented Australia were unveiled prior to kickoff.
🇦🇺0-0🇳🇿 #AUSvNZL#GoSocceroos #GiveIt100 pic.twitter.com/WAYW3Ch3b5
Mabil's strike just past the half-hour mark proved the difference.
What a way to score your first goal in Australia, @awermabil17 👏— Socceroos (@Socceroos) September 22, 2022
🇦🇺1-0🇳🇿 #AUSvNZL#GoSocceroos #GiveIt100 pic.twitter.com/TETanmkgEm
Fresh off being named the coach of the Socceroos' team of the century, Guus Hiddink took up a position in the dugout as an assistant to Arnold.
"I worked with him in the past, and when I see now how he managed everything, I'm very proud of it"— 10 Football (@10FootballAU) September 22, 2022
Graham Arnold and Guus Hiddink caught up with Scott Mackinnon post-match.
The @Socceroos are back in action on Sunday 12.30pm AEST | Live on @Channel10AU and 10 Play on demand 📺 pic.twitter.com/noAuXwxyd1
After the match: What the managers/players said
Irvine to Network 10: "Far from satisfied, to be honest. There was a lot of things we could have done better. Very satisfied with the result; at the end of the day, winning games of football is what it's all about and we managed to do that today. A lot of aspects of the game we can do better, we know that. But with a tight preparation and a lot of travel, there's a lot to be pleased about. At the end of the day, a win's a win. It's a landmark event for the national team. One hundred years. And I'm glad we could send everyone home with a positive result."
Wood to Network 10: "We play football, we try to play out from the back. You've seen that, we've done it against Costa Rica as well. It's a local derby, you have to be physical, you have to be ready for the fight. It's one of those where you put your front foot forward and you go from there."
Hiddink to Network 10: "Even though it's a practice game, it's very important for the confidence that you win. I think this is not a bad team, New Zealand was a very skilful team. Although I think that [Australia] should have had maybe one or two more goals."
Arnold to Network 10: "Look, we've still got a long way to go. New Zealand just got beat by Costa Rica and they could have easily qualified. I thought if there was one negative with us tonight it was that we lost the physical battle. When you get to the World Cup you've got to win those physical battles."
Australia have now lost only one of their past ten men's internationals at Lang Park (W6, D3), according to the Socceroos. Their last defeat there came in a 1-0 loss to Korea Republic on January 17, 2015.
Despite the long-shared history between the two, Thursday was the first meeting between Australia and New Zealand since June of 2011, according to the Socceroos.
According to the Socceroos, Thursday was Taggart's 17th cap, but the first in which the former Brisbane Roar man was able to represent his country on home soil.
It's now been more than 20 years since New Zealand defeated Australia, according to Network 10, last done in the Oceania Nations Cup Final in 2002.
Both these sides will fly to New Zealand for the return fixture of this two-game series at Eden Park on Sunday afternoon, the first game that the Kiwis will have played at home in five long years.
Arnold has already indicated that it will be a much different Socceroos lineup in that contest, with most of Thursday's starting XI not even expected to make the flight to the Land of the Long White Cloud. This opens the door for debuts to the likes of Cummings, Kuol, Cameron Devlin and Harrison Delbridge, and for those such as Denis Genreau, Connor Metcalfe and Marco Tilio to press their case for a spot on the plane to Doha.