Australia extending winning streak has Socceroos' qualifying campaign far surpassing expectations

Australia has extended its unbeaten run in 2022 World Cup Qualification to 11 -- a new world record for wins in a single campaign -- after downing Oman 3-1 in Qatar.

Yet again playing a 'home' fixture at the Khalifa International Stadium due to their homeland's strict 14-day quarantine rules for international arrivals, coach Graham Arnold's side took the lead in just the ninth minute of play when Awer Mabil collected a knocked-down cross and fired home.

Oman, nevertheless, were able to respond to their more fancied foes and, after threatening on a number of occasions, broke through for the equaliser in the 28th minute when Al Mandhar Al Alawi found space in the area and found the net -- breaking the Socceroos' streak of over seven hours without conceding.

But after a frustrating first half, Australia struck early in the second stanza when a Tom Rogic cutback found Adam Taggart with enough space in the area to get a shot off. Though Faiz Al-Rushaidi was able to deflect the striker's save, he could do nothing to prevent Martin Boyle following up with a diving header to make it 2-1.

Substitute Mitch Duke then made it 3-1 in the 89th minute to seal the three points for the Socceroos.

"I think the boys did extremely well," Arnold said post-game. "I thought that probably in the first half we got dragged into an erratic game. Very end to end and very open. And that was probably not what we wanted.

"But at halftime when I could get the players in and calm them down we focused on a few of the weaknesses from Oman and I thought in the second half we did exceptionally well."

Having done the business against their group's three lowest-ranked sides, the Socceroos will now head East for a massive clash with Japan on Tuesday evening -- one that could serve to make and break both nations' campaigns.

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Still third in Group B despite back-to-back defeats, Oman will look to right the ship when they welcome still winless Vietnam to Muscat later that evening.

The Game

Perhaps the biggest question that awaited Socceroo fans that rose in the early hours of Friday morning was, quite simply, which Socceroo side would show up? Would it be the outfit that was so devastating in dispatching China 3-0 in the opening game of this phase of qualification? Or would it be the side that, fighting against both the opposition and the oppressive conditions overhead and underfoot, was forced to grind out an unglamorous 1-0 over Vietnam just days later?

The XI selected by Arnold was the same unit that put China to the sword the month prior and the conditions at the air-conditioned Khalifa International Stadium much more conducive to football than those in Hanoi, the pre-game build-up suggested that supporter expectations may have leaned towards the former. Mabil's sweetly taken ninth-minute opener, collecting a Jackson Irvine cross knocked away from intended target Taggart and blasting beyond Al-Rushaidi, would only have reinforced that.

The 3-1 final scoreline will ultimately suggest it as well.

And before one engages in nitpicking, it's important to acknowledge that a 3-1 win is nothing to sneeze at, especially against an Omani side that defeated Japan 1-0 in their opening fixture of this round of qualification, pushed Saudi Arabia hard in their next meeting, was actually playing closer to home than Australia, and has traditionally been a nasty thorn in the side of Australian sides.

But that's also not to suggest that this was a flawless performance from the Australians, or even approaching the same level of comfort that was the 3-0 win over China.

Following the opening goal, Arnold's side settled into what now feels like a familiar routine; poking and prodding at the periphery of their foes embedded defence before occasionally being sent into moments of panic when forced to rapidly get back and defend a break in transition by their foes.

Almost immediately following the re-start, for example, the nominal visitors would force a turnover and spring forward with a counter-attack that saw Zahir Al Aghbari force goalkeeper Mat Ryan into a split-second, acrobatic save to put it out for a corner and protect his side's newfound lead.

Demonstrating the difference in quality between themselves and China and Vietnam, the Socceroos' streak of over seven hours without a goal conceded was then broken when Al Alawi spun away from Harry Souttar -- the giant defender many things, nimble on his feet probably not one of them -- and fired home a 28th-minute equaliser.

But nonetheless, a moment of penetration from Rogic was enough to set the table for Boyle to restore the Socceroos' lead early on in the second half and after seeing off a few nervy moments up the other end -- Al Alawi again losing Souttar as Oman broke quickly in the 64th minute only to be denied by Ryan -- the win was secured when Duke jabbed home the third.

For all the criticism that Arnold receives for his tactics and approach to the game, he undoubtedly has his side believing that they have what it takes to win and are resilient enough to not collapse in the face of adversity. Whereas Australian teams of years gone by may have allowed their heads to drop or turned off at a crucial moment and conceded another, the Socceroos were able to find a way to win.

Now, they have three points, three wins from three in this phase of qualification, 11 wins in total, and top spot in Group B.

What to make of the Socceroos

Looking at the broader context, with 11 wins on the bounce the Socceroos now stand alone with the longest winning streak in a single World Cup qualification campaign and just one behind South Korea for the all-time AFC record of 12 set across multiple campaigns.

It's a record that evokes images of a side dripping in dominance and imperturbability: a side sweeping all before them as they swagger towards the biggest stage in all of sport with relative ease. Now, of course, that picture is hardly reflective of reality but, at the same time, it's far, far, far beyond what any Australian fan would have expected from this side at the beginning of qualification.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's a streak that has been fashioned without a single game in Australia since November 2019 -- Australia's historical record in Asia is much better at home than away. Due to Australia's stringent quarantine restrictions, it's also one that's been delivered in recent fixtures without the services of key Australian-based players such as Mat Leckie and Jamie Maclaren.

"Sometimes it's about performance but other times it's about results," Arnold reflected in the lead into the Oman game. "I think that debate will go on forever but there is never, do never play in the same conditions all the time or in the same circumstances."

Given the relatively low expectations this side had placed upon them coming into this qualification campaign even before the pandemic hit -- the dearth of its men in Europe's top-five leagues well covered in Australia -- that they are now setting records and in the box-seat for a fifth straight appearance at a World Cup is a fantastic result for the nation.

Showdown in Saitama

It's not hyperbole to declare that next Tuesday's meeting between Australia and Japan is one of the biggest in the history of the two nations' rivalry.

Despite being the top-ranked side in the AFC and possessing a squad loaded with high-profile, European-based talent, coach Hajime Moriyasu's side suffered their second defeat in three matches on Friday morning when they went down 1-0 to Saudi Arabia in Jeddah: leaving them languishing six points behind Australia and the Saudis after three matches.

A home defeat against Australia in the coming days, combined with what should be a Saudi win over China, would leave them nine points adrift of the two automatic qualification slots in Group B -- an almost insurmountable gap to close in the hyper-competitive battlefield that is AFC qualifying.

For Australia, meanwhile, a road win against their rivals would set up a scenario wherein a win over Saudi Arabia in their next qualifier in November -- almost certainly the first to be played in Australia since the beginning of the pandemic -- would make them almost unbackable favourites to secure an automatic qualification slot for 2022.

But though the Socceroos will effectively be playing with house money for the coming fixture as a result, everything to gain and, in context, very little to lose, history suggests that they'll be up against it in searching for a win.

Though Australia has perhaps the most famous triumph between the two nation's since the former joined the AFC -- the famous 3-1 win in Kaiserslautern in the 2006 World Cup -- it has been over 12 years since a side wearing Green and Gold downed the Samurai Blue: a 2-1 win at the MCG back in 2010 World Cup qualification.

Since that occasion, Japan has won four games against three draws and Australia has only been able to take some semblance of a result in Japan once: a dramatic 1-1 draw at the Saitama Stadium back in 2014 World Cup qualifying.

Now, with the Socceroos resembling the little engine that could this campaign and Japan in turgid form, but carrying inevitable desperation, their coming meeting has the potential to be special.