<
>

Australia homecoming stalemate vs. Saudi Arabia a setback for World Cup qualification hopes

play
Why Australia is set for a new 'exciting chapter' of football (1:07)

Sydney FC's Ally Green speaks about the important message behind the rebranding of the A-League and W-League. (1:07)

"In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity," Sun Tzu wrote in "The Art of War" around 2,500 years ago. Perhaps, following Australia's 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia on Thursday, it could be said to be "The Art of Arnold."

Time and time again throughout this 2022 World Cup qualifier in Sydney, coach Graham Arnold's Socceroos bluntly threw themselves against their opponents, only to find that when it came down to that final moment the footballing gods were against them on the night of their much-anticipated homecoming at Parramatta Stadium - the first men's international in Australia in over two years.

- AFC World Cup 2022 qualifying fixtures & results | Standings
- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access

The home side's long balls over the top, which became increasingly common after the opening half an hour as Ajdin Hrustic became more of a target man rather than a link between midfield and attack, continued to fall in the wrong spot or were snuffed out. Turnovers that led to rapid moments of transition, traditionally an area where the Socceroos feast, were stymied by mistimed passes or the ball being caught underfoot. Speculative balls and crosses into the area from Martin Boyle and Awer Mabil when the initial route to goal was blocked were bundled away.

And when things did appear to be going right, a clear route to goal found or the bounce going the way of the hosts, desperate defending and goalkeeping was enough to keep the danger at bay.

"Just one of those games where the ball didn't want to go in," was how Australia captain and striker Mat Leckie reflected. "But it was still a positive performance."

Indeed, on another night, the fates may have been kinder to the side in green-and-gold and one of their efforts would have gone in; completely changing the approach of both sides, sending it on a completely different trajectory. Goals, after all, change games. And the addition of Mitch Duke, Andrew Nabbout, and Riley McGree as the second half wore on -- strong, high energy players capable of beating their foes into submission -- combined with Leckie's postmatch comments, suggest that the Socceroos believed their approach would eventually bear fruit.

But therein lies the peril of an attack resting on individual moments of skill from your front four or breakdowns in concentration and performance from the opposition in such a crucial fixture, on only having one speed and one direction; sometimes randomness and chance come up against you.

Now, after having their 11-game winning streak snapped by Japan in their previous game, Arnold and his Socceroos have taken just one point off the two most well-credentialed teams they have come across during their quest to qualify for Qatar 2022. Whereas upcoming fixtures against China and Vietnam -- the first of which will be staged in the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday -- would have previously been able to be approached with a layer of comfort, the razor-thin margins in Group B's standings that now exist embody within those games an extra level of anxiety. Likewise, the home fixture against Japan during the March window -- five days before a trip to the Gulf for the return fixture with the Saudis -- is increasingly shaping as a high-stakes, must-win game against, historically, Asia's strongest side.

At the same time, it can't just be said that Thursday's draw was simply the result of the Australians failing to figure it out. Significant credit must be given to Saudi Arabia and, in particular, their coach Herve Renard. Given both the practical and symbolic weight of the game even before a ball had been kicked -- the Socceroos able to take top spot in the group off the Green Falcons with a win in what was their first fixture on home soil in over two years -- many an Asian side would have wilted under the onslaught that they were forced to endure. Especially one that, like the Saudis, was missing two starting defenders and their first-choice goalkeeper.

Indeed, as the Matildas did in their two friendly fixtures against Brazil at the same venue the previous month, the Socceroos started the game with all the vim and vigour of a heeler exposed to a particularly unruly herd of sheep -- defender Rhyan Grant getting forward and skying an effort over the bar of Mohammed Al-Rubaie's goal within the opening 40 seconds. Playing on home soil for the first time in 763 days, one wouldn't have expected anything less from the hosts. But despite this emotional wave, it seemingly only took around 10 minutes for Renard's men to absorb the hosts' opening flurry and force them to devolve into a more speculative approach.

Admittedly, one can't pretend that it wasn't a defensive performance heavily supplemented with acts of playacting, time-wasting, and general gamesmanship. The Saudis will have won few admirers from the home fans that made their way to the stadium. They, however, likely won't care. For when they board the private jet that will take them to South-East Asia and a meeting with Vietnam on Tuesday they will do so knowing that, after taking a point off Australia at home for the first time in their history, they sit comfortably in the box seat to secure automatic qualification for Qatar 2022. And besides, when it's done right, the proper deployment of such spoiling tactics is a skill in and of itself.

On another day, fortune favours their late flurry in which Salem Al-Dawsari forced Australia goalkeeper Mat Ryan into a series of key saves and Saleh Al-Shehri flashed a header just wide and they're taking three points with them. But, in this particular bout of chaos, neither side was able to take their opportunity.