Yengi, Circati shine as Socceroos complete 'perfect' group stage

PERTH, Australia - You would have to go a long way to find something that went wrong for the Socceroos on Tuesday evening. Almost 8,000 kilometres, in fact, all the way to Seoul, where South Korea's 1-0 win over China ensured that Graham Arnold's longstanding goal of securing top seeding during the third round of Asian qualifying was dashed. Given that said excursion would require a passport, however, this likely gives some indication of how well things went in Perth itself, where Australia downed a rotated Palestine team 5-0 to end a "perfect" phase of qualification.

The Socceroos will now advance to the next round of qualification for the 2026 World Cup across North America with six wins from six, scoring 22 goals against none conceded. Even at this early stage of qualification, when the minnows swim with the sharks of the continent, that latter statistic places the side in select company, one of only a handful in history to have gone through this phase without having their defence breached.

Pleasingly for the hosts, Thursday's win over Palestine was probably their best attacking performance since the start of qualifiers last November, too. Yes, they scored more against Bangladesh in Melbourne and did a number on Lebanon in Canberra during the last window, but the Lions of Canaan came into Tuesday's contest having established themselves as the second-best side in Group I -- an achievement mostly built of a defensive solidarity that had seen them ship just a single goal, from a Harry Souttar set piece, across their five games to date.

While there may have been a certain degree of fortune about some of Australia's goals -- a contentious penalty just three minutes in knocked Palestine back on their heels, and a 43rd-minute strike to make it 3-0 after a series of line-ball offside calls gave them an insurmountable mountain to climb -- there was still a level of connectivity in the movements of Arnold's side that hasn't been sighted often in recent times.

The wins over Palestine in Kuwait last November and Lebanon in Sydney earlier this year were a laborious grind, while January's Asian Cup, placed in the middle of this phase of qualification, was marked by a level of bluntness in front of goal and moroseness in possession. Even that heavy win over the Cedars in Canberra had been largely drawn from a dominant Craig Goodwin performance. But Tuesday's showing, featuring the nascent understanding and ability to combine demonstrated Kusini Yengi, Adam Taggart, and Martin Boyle, as well as the return of Mathew Leckie, seasoned as he may be, felt more of a positive omen.

Yes, it could all go to pieces against a stronger, or more organised, opponent during the next phase; there was a bright start to the qualifying campaign four years ago, after all, only for it to subsequently end up in an intercontinental playoff after a somewhat predictable backsliding in results. Palestine experimented during this game, too, tinkering with a new back five, as well as rotating seven players into a side that wouldn't be considered their best. Coach Makram Daboub's alterations, thus probably temper things a tad but, at the same time, also demonstrate the talent pool the Socceroos now possess -- that they could make eight changes, sans 15 players from the last window, and still look comfortable against their opponents speaks to that.

Controlling possession in the middle of the park continues to be a weakness for the Socceroos, but it was here where Alessandro Circati -- in one of the most impressive starting debuts for an Australian national team in some time, even as a centre-back in a 5-0 win -- did something to obfuscate with his ability to progress the side from defence, often with a sumptuously hit diagonal. This facilitation was combined with a series of crucial interventions by the Parma defender that blocked away shooting opportunities for Mohammed Rashid, Islam Batran, and Moustafa Zeidan -- the latter a brave header on a shot that looked dangerously goal-bound off the boot. So perturbed that he hadn't been asked a question about him to that point, Arnold went out of his way to bring up and praise the play of Circati in his official post-game press conference.

"He was incredible," said the coach. "He's so mature for his age. But I think that's the tip of the iceberg. Because next year he's going to be playing in Serie A, in Italy, against some incredible strikers. So he's going to get better and better."

The last time that Circati played in his native Perth before Tuesday, his Perth Glory youth were downing Rockingham City in West Australia's semiprofessional National Premier League competition, running out 5-1 winners at ahem Crazy Domains Stadium at Hartfield Park. Exactly 1,364 days later, however, in front of nearly 20,000 fans in his hometown, he looked every bit like the kind of player that can become a decade-long contributor for the Socceroos. Yes, his position is possibly the deepest within the squad right now but, given the level the 20-year-old appears to be at already, preparing to head into the birthplace of catenaccio with Parma, Arnold is almost certainly correct in his prediction he's only going to get better from here -- raising not just his level, but forcing the likes of Souttar, Cameron Burgess, Thomas Deng, Kye Rowles and more to respond lest they see their minutes cannibalised.

Moving on, though, up to the other end of the pitch. Because if we're talking about potential building blocks we need to come to Yengi. Especially because the striking position can't be said to be blessed with the same level of well-credentialled contributors that exists at the centre of the defence.

Ever since he was brought into the international fold last November, it has been apparent that Arnold is seeking to give Yengi every opportunity possible to stand up and seize the starting striker role as his own. The No. 9 position is perhaps the most bemoaned of any slot in the Socceroos lineup ever since Mark Viduka retired, after all. Heavy lies the crown of the king, but heavier still is the title of "the next Duke."

Seeking to build his confidence and rhythm, Arnold again demonstrated his investment in the South Australian when he made him one of just two outfielders -- Jackson Irvine the other -- to retain his place in the XI after starting against Bangladesh last week. The message was clear and what did Yengi do in response? Only go and deliver a first international brace, extending his scoring run in a green-and-gold shirt to four in his last three games, and play a crucial role in the scoring of two more.

Yes, as mentioned, the two strikes came under fortuitous circumstances, but there was no denying Yengi's pressing work that led to Michel Termanini turning the ball over for Australia's second goal, while the Portsmouth striker's skilful turn as he received the ball at the top of the six-yard-box for Australia's third is also worth noting. And then there was the strength in control before a sumptous the pass that split the Palestinian defence for the Socceroos' fourth of the night.

It's not hyperbole to say that Yengi's physical tools are elite, it's just a matter of putting everything together to capitalise. This is probably why his move out of his comfort zone to Portsmouth, despite not truly establishing himself in the A-League Men, was so crucial; at 25, he's not a young player anymore, he's starting his prime and he needed to force an adaptation in a cruel, sink-or-swim environment. Next season in the Championship will boost that even further given that, all things being equal, he will add to an increased level of competition gleaned from promotion a first truly long season -- around 50 or so games across various competitions, compared to his somewhat light load in his first year in the south of England.

Not to get too caught up with the shiny new toy, Taggart, too, was impressive in Arnold's two-man strike force. That means, if one was forced to pick a loser from the Australian contingent coming out of Tuesday evening then it would probably have to be, through no fault of his own, Mitchell Duke, simply because his rivals for minutes within the national team setup did so well as he watched on from Japan, after being allowed to return to his club after last week's Bangladesh game to avoid yellow card trouble.

Both Yengi and Arnold were quick to say post-game that he hadn't been perfect, that he'd made mistakes that on another day, against a better opponent, would be punished and that he needed to keep working hard to improve. But there was nonetheless an air on Tuesday that Yengi had taken a major step forward in establishing himself as the guy for the Socceroos on the road to 2026, in the type of game that might be used as a key moment in recaps in the years ahead.