Sydney (AFP) – Coach Graham Arnold has urged a demoralised Australia to be positive as he came under mounting pressure Friday after their failure to automatically qualify for a fifth successive World Cup.
The Socceroos needed to beat Japan in Sydney on Thursday and then win against Saudi Arabia next week to seal their place in Qatar.
But after holding the rampant Japanese goalless for 89 minutes, a brace from substitute Kaoru Mitoma stunned the home side, who now face a play-off against either UAE, Iraq or Lebanon.
If they get through that, they then meet a team from South America for the right to play at the World Cup later this year.
“It’s been a tough two years but some people don’t want to hear that,” said Arnold, whose side were forced to play most of their games away from home due to Covid travel restrictions.
“It’s always difficult (through the playoffs) to qualify for the World Cup. At the end of the day, we’ve got to brush ourselves off,” he said following Thursday’s 2-0 defeat.
“We’ve got the third-placed spot and you’ve got to be positive about that. We did that in 2018 (and qualified for the World Cup) and we’ve just got to move forward.”
Australia made a stong start to the Asian qualifying campaign, but after losing to Japan away in October, three draws derailed their progress.
While Arnold has often been hampered by an understrength squad, the 58-year-old’s tactics and style of play have come under criticism.
On Thursday he left in-form striker Jamie Maclaren on the bench until the 84th minute, while Mitchell Duke, who had not scored in nine games for his second division Japanese team, played but rarely threatened.
Arnold breaching quarantine after testing positive for coronavirus last week didn’t help his cause and The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Friday that he could be axed after their dead-rubber clash against the Saudis in Jeddah next Tuesday.
The newspaper said the players needed reinvigorating and sacking Arnold could be the circuit-breaker needed to help reset for the crucial play-off in June.
“It’s not looking good for him past Saudi,” one ‘insider’ was quoted as saying.
“The disruption that was caused this week (by his quarantine breach), the disappointing results, the pattern of deteriorating performances all seem to be heading in one direction.”
Arnold took charge after Australia were eliminated from the World Cup in Russia four years ago, with names floated as possible replacements including former Socceroos captain Kevin Muscat and Melbourne Victory coach Tony Popovic.
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