The Socceroos take on Vietnam in what is undoubtedly a must-win World Cup qualifying clash, but there is a high probability that Graham Arnold will be absent from the dugout.
Arnold has been isolating in Melbourne after testing positive for Covid and although he is due to emerge from isolation on the day of the game, a quick turnaround to be with the team at AAMI Park in Melbourne for the game looks unlikely.
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In his absence, assistant coaches Rene Meulensteen and Tony Vidmar have taken charge of the training sessions and will be the ones barking out instructions on the sideline on Thursday night, although Arnold maintains a digital presence among the squad according to defender Milos Degenek.
“We’re going to miss him because he’s our head coach,” Degenek said on Monday.
“It’s not ideal for us, but Arnie’s going to be with us digitally in all the meetings, digitally he’ll be in all the training session and all the pre-game stuff so he’ll be around … he’ll be there with us in spirit.”
The Vietnam game comes at a crucial juncture for the Socceroos in their bid to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar later this year as they are winless in their previous three games after an 11-game win streak.
A 2-1 loss to Japan was followed by draws against Saudi Arabia and China, leaving the Aussies in third place in Group B, one point behind second-placed Japan and five behind group leaders Saudi Arabia.
The gravity of the Vietnam match is certainly not lost on the players.
“We’re all positive,” Degenek said.
“We all know what’s expected of us.
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‘The best part about it is it’s all in our hands.
“We all know what’s on the line.”
The two sides have already met in the third round of the AFC World Cup Qualifiers.
The Socceroos eked out a narrow 1-0 victory against Vietnam in Hanoi on a pitch that was more akin to a cow paddock than an actual football field thanks to a Rhyan Grant goal in the 43rd minute.
A loss for the Socceroos doesn’t exactly leave their World Cup hopes in tatters, but it would leave an almighty mountain to climb if they want to punch their tickets to Qatar.
The top two spots in Group A and Group B in the AFC World Cup Qualifying groups automatically qualify for the big dance, while the third place teams from Group A and Group B face off in a two-legged match to book a spot in an intercontinental play-off match against the fifth-placed team from CONMEBOL, the governing body of football in South America.
At this time, Peru are in fifth place in the CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying standings.
But there’s certainly a large peloton in the standings, with fourth-placed Colombia sitting on 17 points and ninth-placed Paraguay on 13, as four teams are sandwiched in-between.
After the Vietnam clash, the Socceroos have the toughest three fixtures possible left to play.
An away trip to Oman on February 2 is next on the calendar, followed by a home match at ANZ Stadium against Japan on March 24 that promises to be an epic occasion.
A blockbuster match away day against Saudi Arabia to round out the qualifiers will certainly have plenty of implications hinged on it, so it cannot be overstated how important a win against Vietnam on Thursday truly is.
HOW TO WATCH
The Socceroos v Vietnam game on January 27 will be live on free-to-air TV on 10 Bold.
WHEN DOES IT START
The match will kick off at AAMI Park in Melbourne at 8:10pm (AEDT).
WHY THE SOCCEROOS WILL WIN
Put simply, there’s too much riding on this match that the Socceroos simply cannot afford for any other result than three points.
The return of Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic is crucial for the Aussies.
The duo’s creativity in the final third was sorely missed in the previous two encounters, and against a team that is likely to sit back and defend with their lives in a low block, having that pass to unlock a tight backline will be vital.
In the end, the Socceroos simply have too much quality against a team that hasn’t won once in this stage of the qualifying process.
WHY VIETNAM WILL WIN
It’s extremely unlikely that Vietnam will jet out of Melbourne with three points in their pockets.
But football is a sport that has a funny habit of delivering the unthinkable when we least expect it.
For all of the Socceroos’ attacking impetus, they have struggled to turn it into goals and have shown a vulnerability to a quick counter-attack.
Vietnam aren’t going to fire out with all guns blazing and press for 90 minutes, but will spring into life on the counter and will likely get a few chances of their own.
They just need to take one to send shivers down the spines of the crowd in Melbourne tomorrow night and throw the Socceroos’ plans for the World Cup into disarray.