A long-distance wonderstrike from Awer Mabil was the clear highlight, but Australia’s World Cup opponents would have been otherwise rubbing their hands together with glee after Thursday night’s sluggish 1-0 friendly win over New Zealand.
The Socceroos were celebrating the team’s 100-year anniversary and had the legendary Guus Hiddink – named as coach of Australia’s team of the century earlier in the day – sat next to his former assistant Graham Arnold on the bench at Suncorp Stadium to help inspire them in their final game on home soil before they gather in Qatar in less than two months.
But aside from Mabil’s excellent 20-metre effort in the opening half, there was little to be excited about, or for France, Denmark and Tunisia – who are in Group D with Australia at the World Cup – to be worried about on the basis of this clash against the All Whites, who are ranked 64 spots lower than them by FIFA.
The intensity and ferocity that marked Australia’s wins over the UAE and Peru in June was almost entirely absent, and the same issues in possession that dogged the team in the latter stages of their World Cup qualifying campaign were back.
Given the relative magnitude of the occasion, the turnout of 25,392 was poor, and the atmosphere at the half-filled venue paled in comparison to other pre-World Cup send-offs the Socceroos have enjoyed over the years.
Arnold fielded six of the 11 players who started in their last outing against Peru, and but for injured centre-backs Kye Rowles and Harry Souttar – and perhaps Tom Rogic, who missed that window for still-unknown personal reasons – this was essentially a full-strength Socceroos side. Adam Taggart led the frontline, flanked by Mabil and Martin Boyle, the midfield was Aaron Mooy, Jackson Irvine and Ajdin Hrustic, while Mat Ryan wore the captain’s armband in goal behind a back four of Fran Karacic, Trent Sainsbury, Milos Degenek and Aziz Behich – a strong hint of the sort of team Arnold might roll out in Qatar.
Awer Mabil celebrates his long-range winner with Socceroos teammates.Credit:Getty
Jamie Maclaren, Riley McGree, Nathaniel Atkinson, Mathew Leckie, Joel King and Connor Metcalfe all got a taste of action off the bench in the second half, with Arnold clearly intending on being far more experimental with his selections in Sunday’s rematch at Auckland’s Eden Park.
But the first half was laborious stuff from the hosts. Sainsbury turned in an unflattering performance early on, turning over the ball with a dangerous central pass that nearly handed the Kiwis the opening goal on a silver platter after barely a minute of action. On nine minutes, he was made to look almost geriatric as Andre de Jong surged past him far too easily and should have scored to finish off a rapid counter.
Eventually, the Socceroos gained a degree of ascendancy, and after a few half-chances, a horrible point-blank miss from Jackson Irvine, and a goal questionably ruled out just before the half-hour mark, it was a piece of individual brilliance in the 32nd minute which broke the deadlock.
It was Mabil’s first international goal on Aussie soil, his eighth for his country, and one to remember as he cut inside from the left wing, took aim a few metres from the edge of the penalty area, and let rip with a rocket of a shot.
There was little of note that occurred in the second half, aside from a wonderful fingertip save from New Zealand’s Oli Sail that tipped a shot from Leckie onto the outside of the post, foiling a terrific fast break from the Socceroos. All up, it leaves Arnold and his men with plenty to work on, and not much time to do so.
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