What happens next for Socceroos in Asian Cup build-up, three key injuries for Arnie to assess

Australia 1 Palestine 0 | Socceroos World Cup Qualifying

World Cup qualifying victory over Palestine was scrappy in the extreme, but two wins from two has Australia sitting pretty.

The Socceroos won’t need much persuading to look forward to the AFC Asian Cup, and move on quickly from the 1-0 defeat of Palestine that secured a second win in two games to start off qualification for the next FIFA Men’s World Cup.

“Never mind the quality, feel the win” might serve as a summary of the most forgettable 90 minutes the Socceroos have served up for some time but ultimately the job was done, three more points were banked through Harry Souttar’s first-half header and Australia has moved to a position of comfort in terms of their 2026 World Cup aspirations.

The other two games in their group played so far have ended in draws, meaning Graham Arnold’s side could all but wrap up qualification to the next stage during a doubleheader of fixtures with Lebanon in March.

The second of those is likely to be the most challenging of this group, particularly as the venue for it may not be known until much nearer the date given the conflict unfolding in Gaza. Palestine showed that on a troublesome surface and backed by a raucous crowd, teams can aim to disrupt the passing football that the Socceroos have evolved over the past year.

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The fact that Mat Ryan was arguably the most effective passer on either side, positioned at times almost as a quarter-back high up the pitch, says a lot about his teammates’ inability to get on the ball and control not just the tempo of the game but where on the pitch it was played.

Instead there are similarities with previous encounters in the Middle East, such as Oman away in 2021 and the infamous night in Tehran in 2017 when Ange Postecoglou introduced his three-at-the-back and Australia held on for a draw against Iraq amid a tumultuous atmosphere.

Teams will look to stretch Australia with direct passes and try to turn Arnold’s back four – which is why possession becomes so important.

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Long before the World cup campaign resumes in March, attention can turn to Australia’s attempt to win back the 2024 Asian Cup. Arnold is likely to announce his 23-man squad just before Christmas, with the players expected to assemble in Qatar around the turn of the year.

Some of their clubs are not best pleased at the prospect of losing their players mid-season for a tournament that has its own international window in terms of player release, but for which no major leagues are halting.

There maybe a friendly in the first days of 2024, before the Asian Cup campaign itself begins on Saturday January 13 against India (kick off 10.30pm AEDT). The suspicion is that pending any fresh injuries, Arnold has the great majority of that squad firmly pencilled in, if not actually written in ink.

The term “fresh injuries” is important because there are three existing ones that could cause the head coach some head aches. Ryan Strain limped away from this game with an apparently significant groin issue and may face a period on the sidelines.

Mathew Leckie meanwhile is aiming to return to Melbourne City’s colours early next month, but that would give him three games – just possibly four, depending on the date of the squad announcement – to prove his full fitness from a significant knee strain.

Riley McGree, another automatic inclusion if fit, has been troubled by a planter problem in his foot for weeks and hasn’t played in seven weeks. The most recent news from Boro head coach Michael Carrick was that he couldn’t put a timeframe on McGree’s return, which is discomforting for Arnold.

The next few weeks promise to be pivotal for players like Kusini Yengi, Brandon Borrello and Sami Silvera, hoping their league form is enough to confirm their inclusion in Arnold’s final Asian Cup squad, particularly if Leckie is fit to return.