Australia, by now, are staples of the World Cup finals.
They will make a fourth successive appearance in the tournament this summer, but getting there was not easy. By the time their place in Russia had been confirmed, manager Ange Postecoglou had resigned, and was replaced by Dutchman Bert van Marwijk.
A difficult qualification campaign, it seemed, had taken its toll. The struggle to progress, too, hinted at an Australian squad lacking the quality to make a significant impact in Russia.
However, van Marwijk is an experienced coach and, when Australia were drawn alongside Peru and Denmark, there was a sense of cautious optimism.
Route to the finals
Australia’s route was circuitous and arduous: they travelled over 250,000km – a qualifying record – and played 22 games. This was due to an inability to see out the final games of their group.
Australia, towards the end of their campaign, were on course to finish top and qualify automatically, but four successive draws allowed both Saudi Arabia and Japan to move in front, missing out on automatic progression by two goals.
In the end, Australia needed victories against Syria and Honduras in nervy playoff ties.
The Socceroos drew with Syria in the first leg before earing a 2-1 victory after extra time in a hard-fought battle, before comfortably seeing off Honduras 3-1 in the CONCACAF vs AFC playoff. They will hope that the finals prove less stressful.
Postecoglou favoured a 3-4-2-1 system, but van Marwijk has scrapped that in favour of something more orthodox.
Australia had played with a fluidity and attacking freedom, but it resulted in some defensive issues and the Dutchman has looked to address them.
His system will be a more rigid one, although there are players capable of creativity in the final third.
Mile Jedinak, the Socceroos captain, will hold the midfield in front of his back four. Alongside him, Huddersfield Town’s Aaron Mooy will have license to push into advanced areas.
Tommy Rogic’s guile will be necessary if Australia are to penetrate opposition defences, and goals will be needed from lone striker Tomi Juric.
If all else fails, Tim Cahill will be an option from the bench.
Key player: Aaron Mooy
Much will depend on the performances of Aaron Mooy, who impressed for Huddersfield in their first Premier League season.
His creativity and technical proficiency will be crucial if Australia are to progress from their group. For instance, Mooy created 50 chances for the Terriers in the Premier League, over double that of their next most creative player.
Mooy is capable of producing the spectacular in a team of industry and hard work, but his defensive work will be important too. To demonstrate this, Mooy made 59 tackles in 2017/18 -more than Jedinak (25) for Aston Villa in the Championship-, as well as 33 interceptions.
Alongside Mile Jedinak, Mooy will need to handle a significant set of responsibilities.
Australia have been drawn alongside France, Peru and Denmark in Group C of the 2018 World Cup. Whilst France remain the favourites for the group, there’s certainly scope for the Socceroos to progress in second place.
Those of an Australian persuasion are realistic in their outlook: this is a limited squad and few expect anything remarkable, but optimism ahead of a World Cup, even if it is reluctant, is natural.
Australia will view both Peru and Denmark as beatable opposition. France, of course, are expected to top the group, and the task for Australia in their opening game against Les Bleus will be to avoid a thrashing.
Expectations are low, which could prove beneficial, but there is an acceptance that an improvement will be needed to overcome both Denmark and Peru.
It is difficult to back Australia for a successful tournament when the mood from the country is generally one of pessimism.
“We are lacking in key areas,” former Australia international Robbie Slater told World Soccer, “and quite a few of our players haven’t been playing regularly for their clubs.”
A stunted qualification campaign has not inspired confidence. Australia should not be written off, but progression from Group C would be a surprise.
The most likely outcome, it seems, is a repeat of their previous two appearances in the World Cup finals.
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