Australia's path to World Cup playoffs began long before loss to Japan

SYDNEY -- To quote former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Mora: "Playoffs!?" Yes. Playoffs. That's where Australia's hopes of securing a fifth-straight appearance at a World Cup now lie after Graham Arnold's side were defeated 2-0 by Japan in Sydney on Thursday.

Despite Japan only really needing a draw, substitute Kaoru Mitoma netted 89th- and 94th-minute goals that ensured they would automatically progress to the finals in Qatar later this year. Hajime Moriyasu, after entering his side's first game against the Socceroos last October with an ultimatum of win or be sacked over his head, can now begin to prepare for his nation's seventh World Cup in a row.

Conversely, any hopes that the Socceroos hold of returning to football's biggest stage now rest upon them first being able to down the third-place finisher in the AFC's other qualifying group, presently the United Arab Emirates, and then the fifth-placed finisher from CONMEBOL.

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The prospect of a one-off elimination match against Peru, Chile or even old foes Uruguay has been treated with a level of dreaded inevitability by the broader Australian football public almost ever since the Socceroos inexplicably failed to defeat China back in November. But, looking at the trajectory of the side, a win against Asian opposition can't be taken for granted.

Publicly, Football Australia has already committed to Arnold for the remainder of the cycle and the gaffer -- couched around a series of statements that sounded very close to at least being excuse-adjacent -- said that he wasn't going to make excuses for Thursday's defeat. The 58-year-old spoke about how there are no meaningless matches in World Cup qualifying -- even though that's what next week's meeting with Saudi Arabia, from a qualification perspective, actually is -- and that the coming game represented an opportunity to get important minutes and experience into some of his younger players. But after such an uninspiring performance and with such a bleak picture on the horizon, they were statements that rang decidedly hollow.

"Obviously disappointing that we didn't get the result that we all wanted," Arnold said. "But I can't fault the players'] effort. The effort was fantastic tonight. The crowd was right behind them. The conditions weren't that easy.

"But, you know, tying up the third-place spot and having that playoff like we did in 2018, it's always difficult to qualify for a World Cup. At the end of the day, we're going to brush ourselves off, we'll learn a lot from tonight. I think those young boys that played tonight, they'll see what it takes to get to a top-level playing against these types of players from Japan."

Arnold has gone on the record during this World Cup cycle about the need to back his players and lift them up after defeats, but that his chosen manner to do so in the wake of the defeat was to speak of effort was as revealing as it was, to steal one of his favourite lines, expected. As has been so often demonstrated by both the Socceroos and the Matildas during the past 18 months, effort has never really been a problem for Australian sides competing on the world stage -- and this has been used as cover by Arnold, Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson and their defenders. And while it must be acknowledged that the Socceroos were missing a host of first-choice players against Japan due to a combination of injuries and COVID-19, Thursday's defeat stretched a run that has seen Australia's men win only once in their past six games.

In other words, the Socceroos have been ineffectual for far longer than their blunt 90 minutes at Stadium Australia; they were just poor with different players on Thursday. Japan couldn't necessarily be said to have played particularly well throughout the 90 minutes, but they were simply better organised and better technically than the Australians. When Moriyasu's side -- who were also missing a number of key contributors -- were able to work their way into the attacking third and start to poke and prod Australia's penalty area, they were able to work their way into better areas and fashion better chances.

Much of the build-up to Thursday had been dominated by the call-up of Uruguay-born Perth Glory striker Bruno Fornaroli; an elevation borne of desperation over a lack of attacking options, but one that also shone a light on the story of Australia's qualification campaign as a whole. But when the team sheets were delivered just over an hour before kick-off, it wasn't Fornaroli who was leading the Socceroos line. It wasn't even the A-League Men's leading scorer, Jamie Maclaren. Instead, it was Fagiano Okayama striker Mitch Duke who had been tapped to lead the line by Arnold. On one hand, he is a man who has stepped up when it counts for the Socceroos, with three goals to his name in his previous three starts for the national team. On the other, his goal against China last November constituted the last time he had found the back of the net in any competition: The 31-year-old entered this game having drawn blanks in his past nine games in the Japanese second division, stretching back to the previous season.

When the game commenced, Liverpool's Takumi Minamino seemingly did everything but score for the Blue Samurai: Finding space in the box and forcing Mat Ryan into a save inside the opening 45 seconds, putting a number of gilt-edged chances wide, and rattling the frame of the goal twice in the following 45 minutes. Chances up the other end were more sporadic and more chaotic in their delivery, with the controversial decision to disallow what would have been the opening goal in the 25th minute indicative of the prevailing feeling that their best opportunity would likely come through a set piece.

But then an opportunity arrived, the moment that would have served to justify Arnold opting to start the battering ram that is Duke over Maclaren and Fornaroli. Getting out quickly in transition after another Minamino chance in the 40th minute, an outlet pass found Ajdin Hrustic down the right and the attacker, who was deployed higher up the field as a second striker, curled a ball into the area. Duke was open, he was waiting, but he sent his header straight at goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda.

Fornaroli was reduced to a late cameo of chasing long balls forward in a manner completely unsuited to his skill set, as was Maclaren. But at least they were able to get on to the park. Denis Genreau, playing week in, week out for Ligue 2 promotion favourites Toulouse and possessing skills that set him apart from other strikers, was inexplicably left on the bench for the entire 90 minutes. Afterward, Arnold said that Gianni Stensness was preferred due to his defensive mindset that could help contain Minamino. And we all saw how that worked out.

In the end, Australia weren't good enough, but the question perhaps should be: Were they put in a position to be good enough in the first place?