By Colm Boohig
The Socceroos are on track to where they want to be, just not how they imagined it would happen. A semi-final destination was expected but the venue and opposition was not. The United Arab Emirates provided the shock of the Asian Cup so far by beating the defending champions Japan on penalties in the quarter-final. Couple this with Australia losing top spot in their final Group A game defeat to South Korea and a pre-tournament semi-final prediction in Sydney against Japan now becomes Newcastle and the UAE.
Australia are firm favourites here to progress to the final with a chance of winning a maiden Asian Cup crown. The squad is strengthened too by the return of key defender Matthew Spiranovic, who missed the last eight victory over China due to suspension. Ivan Franjic and Mathew Leckie sat out a part of a recent training session as precaution, but coach Ange Postecoglou is confident with the options available to him for this encounter.
“Everyone has pulled up really well from the quarter-final game. Everyone is available and in good condition which means they have played enough games, but not too many in the most part,” said Postecoglou.
“We will make some changes, but they will be designed around putting out a team who we think can be successful.”
Another advantage that the Socceroos possess going into tonight’s game is the relatively comfortable passage they enjoyed against China, certainly in comparison to the physical exertion of 120 minutes and mental anguish of a penalty shootout that the UAE endured against Japan.
Nevertheless, it is no fluke that the UAE has reached this stage, with coach Mahdi Ali setting the semi-finals as his pre-tournament goal. Much of their success has been courtesy of their midfield maestro, Omar Abdulrahman, who has been splitting open opposition defences with his accurate passing. Combine with the constant goal threat of forward Ali Mabkhout and the side that drew a friendly match against the Socceroos last year have a real chance of causing yet another upset on their way to a first ever Asian Cup triumph.
It is a threat that Postecoglou has been mindful of heading into the match. “We have got a great respect for them and we have been tracking them since the World Cup,” he said.
“We had a feeling they could be an opponent, as even though we did not get them in the group, we thought they would be one of the teams we would get in the knockout rounds.
“We know them really well and we have analysed them well and we know it will be a tough challenge for us.”
Yesterday, South Korea became the first country through to this year’s final after beating Iraq 2-0. The Koreans have yet to concede a goal in the tournament and have, of course, already beaten the Socceroos. They will await their opponent for the final, this coming Saturday in Sydney.
For now, all eyes are on Newcastle tonight where the Socceroos will aim to play as well as their favourites tag suggests.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia