Playing at home for the first time in 763 days, the Socceroos dominated Saudi Arabia’s undefeated squad leaders during much of a gripping and fierce battle.
But the hosts failed to make it a happy homecoming as the win slipped away and the game ended in a deserved goalless draw.
In pouring rain at Western Sydney Stadium, both teams played with great intensity to face a raving crowd, clearly desperate for a crucial victory in the race to qualify for the FIFA World Cup of the Year. next in Qatar.
The feverish game nearly spilled over at many points as brutal tackles came regularly and players shared heated exchanges, with the referee struggling to keep control of the proceedings.
And while the odds were limited in the first stanza, the Socceroos had several opportunities to break the deadlock in the second half before the visitors forced a huge change in momentum and could well have knocked out a winner in the second half. last twenty minutes. But a lack of composure in the final third, which has proven to be a recurring problem for Australia in recent months, once again surfaced as the Socceroos failed to find the net.
Veteran forward Mat Leckie said: “There were thumbs in it. A few crosses where I was a few inches from someone climbing on them.
“They defended well too. And this double opportunity after the free kick, the goalkeeper made a superb save.
The match was marred by a major injury inflicted on rising star center-back Harry Souttar. Largely linked with a move to the Premier League after a few exceptional seasons with Championship side Stoke as well, Souttar was laid on a stretcher after an awkward turn saw him catch his knee in agony.
Coach Graham Arnold said after the game: “It’s very serious. Right now I’m really depressed and devastated for Harry. I think he’s the best center-back in Asia and if it turns out it’s a bad injury it’s a big blow for Harry and a big blow for us.
Speaking of the result, Arnold said: “I think overall we played well. We created chances but they didn’t come in tonight. I think a bit of frustration set in, with the lost time and the Saudis’ tactics… that’s when they had a few chances.
With five games to go, Australia remain second in Asian Group B behind the Green Falcons, who won all four of their games before Thursday’s game.
Arnold added: “We are still in a great position. Ten points in five games. Now let’s move on to the second batch of five games. We beat China (next Wednesday, 2am AEDT) and we are in a good position.
Martin Boyle added: “We are a little frustrated, it shows on the faces of the boys.
“I think we dominated the game. It was that last piece, we didn’t have enough performance. They threw us a bit at the end. We played well. Still a long way to go. “
In a scorching rain in Parramatta, the Socceroos were relentless from the start, playing with frenzied energy and pressing high in a veritable assault with and without the ball.
In a quarter of an hour of opening from start to finish, imposing center-back Harry Souttar was forced to throw his body to block a shot by Salman Al-Faraj from inside the box. In the 20th minute, an unleashed Aziz Behich down the left flank saw a brilliant cross to Leckie’s header at the near post, Australia’s closest chance of the opening stanzas.
In the 29th minute the best chance of the game for Australia arrived, then Martin Boyle faced a pair of players and then whipped a well-aimed cross to the top of the box. Ajdin Hrustic arrived but – unmarked – scuffed his volley into the ground and rebounded away from the goal.
Awer Mabil cut inside and landed a shot from the edge of the box in the 35th minute, but he climbed high and wide, with the possibility of facing his defender perhaps a better option.
Two minutes before the break, Mat Leckie was played behind the line with a raking ball, and he whipped an early cross so Martin Boyle could run – although he was two yards away for the flying winger to reach .
On the brink of the half-time break, Grant swept down the line to end a Martin Boyle brace and thought he had won a free kick although it was instead seen as a corner that went then been cleared.
Boyle was at his dangerous best on the right flank, teaming up well with Grant and constantly looking to take on his opposing full-back.
Just six minutes into the second stanza, a raked bullet from Harry Souttar found Martin Boyle in space, who beat a slipping defender and fired a cross shot from the tightest angles straight towards the keeper. , who almost deflected him into his own net. .
Two minutes later, the Socceroos pulled off their first effort on target of the match as Awer Mabil cut his right foot again and fired a shot – although he rolled obediently along the floor to the at the first post.
In the 60th minute, Mat Leckie managed to get past his defender and burst into the box, but shot from a tight angle rather than hitting a teammate. Less than a minute later, Mabil beat his defender into the zone, cutting him off at Jackson Irvine whose stretching effort skewed his toe. But the visitors reacted immediately by counterattacking and sending a cross into the box misguided by Fahad Al-Muwallad.
Mabil landed a free kick in the 65th minute on the brilliantly saved goal, with a follow-up half volley from Boyle again shooting a sublime glove save.
Mitch Duke replaced Awer Mabil a minute later. Saudi Arabia retaliated with a period of dominance within the next fifteen minutes,
In the 75th minute, Trent Sainsbury was beaten on a long ball but recovered decently to put pressure on Salman Al-Faraj whose shot was aimed at Ryan. In the process, Harry Souttar awkwardly fell and gripped his knee in agony, then was stretched out of the park.
The Saudis tried to capitalize. In the 80th minute, substitute Andrew Nabbout gave the ball away and Salem Al-Dawsari quickly found the ball in the box, but shot directly at Ryan.
The assault continued. Three minutes later, Saleh Al-Shehri sent a header that went past the far post when he should have done much better. Then a long-range strike from Salem Al-Dawsari forced a superb save from Ryan.
Australia’s composure had evaporated after Souttar’s injury. Arnold responded by bringing in even more replacements, having already replaced Souttar with Milos Degenek and Mat Leckie with Andrew Nabbout. This time it was Martin Boyle and Ajdin Hrustic replaced by Riley McGree and Kenny Dougall.
Nabbout shot a wide shot in the final minutes as time ended in a draw.
The Socceroos then fly to Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, for a clash with China on Wednesday morning (2am AEDT). China face Oman overnight, seeking a second victory with three losses in this qualifying phase. The last time the teams met in September, Australia claimed a 3-0 victory thanks to goals from Awer Mabil, Martin Boyle and Mitchell Duke.