Australia's Olympic exit vs. Egypt leaves Olyroos wondering what might have been

Egypt has joined Spain in advancing out of Group C of the Olympic men's football tournament at the Tokyo 2020 Games after winning 2-0 against Australia at Miyagi Stadium in Rifu.

After controlling the first half, coach Shawky Gharieb's side took the lead in the 44th minute through Ahmed Rayan, before seeing off Australian resistance in the 85th minute when Ammar Hamdi struck.

The win was enough to see the Junior Pharaohs leapfrog both Australia and Argentina into second place and set up a quarterfinal meeting against Brazil, with group winners Spain now set to meet Ivory Coast.

The draw between Argentina and Spain, played simultaneously, means that the Australians end their campaign bottom of the group.

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Decisions, decisions

With first-choice right-back Nathaniel Atkinson, midfielder Riley McGree and over-age striker Mitch Duke all suspended thanks to yellow card accumulation, coach Graham Arnold was faced with a dilemma before kick-off on Wednesday. Kye Rowles, Marco Tilio, Dylan Pierias and Nicholas D'Agostino were all elevated to starters as a result, with Daniel Arzani relegated to a bench role. Thomas Deng, having formed a solid defensive partnership with Harry Souttar in the first two games, was moved out to right-back to maintain the team's 4-3-3 shape as Rowles slotted into his central role.

Unfortunately for Australia, days after their pragmatism against Spain was brought undone as they lost 1-0 to a goal in the final 10 minutes, it quickly became apparent that the combination of personnel, formation and approach was suboptimal. In comparison with Egypt, who entered needing a win to stand any chance of advancing, there appeared a lack of attacking intent from Australia, who instead demonstrated a reserved mentality befitting a side that needed only a draw to advance.

The Olyroos' more defensive outlook missed the width previously provided by Atkinson, stifling their efforts to play out from the back. Deng was more inclined to stay deep rather than advance up the touchline and not the most prolific carrier of the ball to begin. On the occasions when play was advanced down the field, problems in possession were compounded by a frontline that seemingly didn't want to grab the ball and force the initiative with it. There were few movements made with or without the ball to force the well-organised Egyptian defence to alter its shape.

Whereas the half-time addition of Arzani and his desire to get on the ball and work did briefly show signs of promise, Arnold's subsequent introduction of centre-back Jay Rich-Baghuelou as a striker on the hour mark and shift to a 4-2-2-2 forced a readjustment just at a moment where it felt like momentum was shifting towards the side in green and gold. As time ticked away, senior international and World Cup veteran Mohamed El-Shenawy was forced into action to make a series of sharp saves that will leave the Australians wondering what might have been.

However, Egypt created a series of chances of their own, with Hamdi hitting the crossbar in the 70th minute. And when the Al Ahly midfielder seized upon Tom Glover's parry of a wicked Nasser Mansi shot to fire home and make it 2-0 in the 85th minute, the Egyptians had sealed a deserved win and with it a place in the quarterfinals.

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Arzani was a bright spark

Arzani is quickly turning into one of the most polarising figures in Australian football. After exploding on to the A-League scene with Melbourne City and appearing as a substitute across all three of the Socceroos games at the 2018 World Cup the attacker, deservedly, became one of the most hyped figures that the Australian game had seen in decades. His subsequent struggles with injuries, and the inevitable backlash from that hype, served to cast doubts as to what he could be expected to contribute at international level.

But Arzani stands out from his peers thanks to a willingness to carry the ball, embrace risk and attempt to force the issue with opposing defences. Inevitably, this can lead to turnovers and moments of frustration -- but it also serves to create chances, disrupt opposing defences' shape, and plant a seed of doubt in opponent's minds.

Within 90 seconds of his second-half introduction on Wednesday, the youngster twice got on the ball and attempted actions that forced the Egypt defence to scramble. Across the next 15 minutes, he and Tilio combined with intent and found pockets of space around D'Agostino as, to their left, defender Joel King consistently got higher up the pitch to drag players out of position. Egypt found themselves in unfamiliar positions when winning the ball in defence, allowing the Olyroos to cut down on moments in transition.

Unfortunately, the addition of Rich-Baghuelou as a second striker served to suffocate the space that Arzani and Tilio had been operating in -- making their creative responsibility as the contest wound down a difficult to carry. While Rich-Baghuelou struggled in his role as a centre-forward, it's very hard to blame him. The 21-year-old has shown impressive positional flexibility with Crystal Palace, but having the responsibility of sparking your nation's attack in 30 minutes of do-or-die football while playing out of position is an unfair burden to bear.

Yet despite the disappointment of the end result, Arzani showed enough against the Egyptians to demonstrate that he is going to be an important figure for the national side for years to come as a creative force that can unlock defences and open the game up for both himself and his teammates -- a reason he perhaps should have started.

Were expectations met?

With the Olyroos' Tokyo campaign now over, the post-mortem can begin. Inevitably, much of these discussions will revolve around areas of weakness in the nation's youth set-up, what needs to be implemented to ensure that the Olryoos don't suffer another 12-year-absence from the Games, and the players who have demonstrated they have a future in the senior international side. And in figures such as Atkinson, Genreau, Arzani and McGree, Arnold has undoubtedly helped reinforce the Socceroos in the coming years.

"In the past, the Olympics has developed and created a lot of national team players for the Soccceroos," the coach said postmatch. "I do feel that I walk away from here with much more depth now for the Socceroos."

But in the short term, the question can also be asked about a variation of one of Arnold's favourite words: expectations. Based on those of a month ago, the Olyroos' campaign in Tokyo has been a success. The team was in with a chance of progressing to the knockout phase of the tournament until the 85th minute in a tough group containing top nations in Argentina and Spain and African champions Egypt.

Conversely, judging on the expectations off the back of the 2-0 win over Argentina, perhaps the standards haven't been met: an inability to take a point from their final two games after stunning the South Americans with a brave and energetic display was a bit of a let-down. Or perhaps given the circumstances of that win -- Argentina fielding a significantly weaker U23 team than they were capable of sending to Japan and the soft red card awarded to Francisco Ortega -- perhaps the external hopes arising from that game were built on a false foundation.

With the benefit of hindsight, the Olyroos probably did meet their expectations in Tokyo -- but in a manner that teased that they could have done more. If they had been more adventurous on the counter-attack -- throwing on Pierias as their opponents' legs tired -- or not retreated and battened down the hatches with half an hour to go, could they have taken something from the Spain game? If they play with the same energy and bravery that they brought to the Argentina game against Egypt, is the story of Wednesday different? If Arzani starts next to Tilio, do the pair find a way to unlock the Junior Pharaohs backline? Ultimately, Australia fans are left to ponder those hypotheticals, while Egypt have a quarterfinal against Brazil to focus on.