Australia's World Cup road now rocky after dispiriting draw at Oman

Australia's hopes of automatically qualifying for the 2022 World Cup have been all but dashed after twice surrendering leads to draw 2-2 with a depleted Oman on Wednesday morning.

Though good value for the 1-0 lead they took into the dressing room at half-time in Muscat -- delivered thanks to a 15th-minute penalty from Jamie Maclaren -- another dispiriting second half fadeout prevented coach Graham Arnold's side from finishing the job against Al-Ahmar, who themselves needed a win to keep their campaign alive.

Despite being able to re-take their lead through Aaron Mooy with just over 10 minutes to go after Abdullah Fawaz had tied things up in the 49th minute, Fran Karacic's inelegant challenge on Muhsen Al-Ghassani in the dying stages would prove disastrous: giving Fawaz a chance to tie things up from the spot that the 25-year-old duly took.

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With only first and second place in their qualification group assured a place in Qatar, the Socceroos now head into the final international window needing to beat the two nations that reside in those places, Japan and Saudi Arabia, to maintain any hope of avoiding an intercontinental playoff pathway.

Even two wins, though, unlikely as they may be, might not prove enough: Japan -- on a five-game winning run after impressing in a 2-0 win over the Saudis overnight and three points clear of Australia -- able to pad their goal difference against Vietnam on the final matchday and The Green Falcons able to clinch automatic qualification with a win over China, regardless of what they subsequently do against the Socceroos. Indeed, from a results perspective, the only benefit that Arnold's side can take from their trip to Muscat is that it has ensured that their campaign won't end following the next international window.

But with that Pyrrhic victory secured, the question now facing the Socceroos is how they prepare to rage against the dying light against Japan and the Saudis.

Across this international window, Arnold's side has put in two sterling first halves before falling away in the second. Against Vietnam, a combination of poor quality opposition, a home advantage, and some fortunate bounces in transition allowed them to escape with the points. Against Oman, the inverse of these factors saw a lead given away on two separate occasions and hopes of automatic qualification for Qatar placed on the edge of a knife.

Heading into March, Arnold faces the challenge of determining what needs to be taken not just from these two games, but the qualification campaign as a whole. The approach his side adopted at the start of the Vietnam and Oman fixtures provided hints as to a better way -- certainly preferable to the pragmatic and predictable fare they served up in the prior games of qualification that truly set the table for the coming months -- but it ultimately proved unsustainable as the games wore on. Be it through changes in personnel or in approach, either from the starting whistle or in mid-game adjustments, the 58-year-old will now be forced to figure out how to stretch that into a full 90 minutes.

"A disappointing result," Arnold told Network 10 post-game. "We went ahead twice in the game and you know we didn't capitalize on that.

"Still got a load of belief in the boys and you know at the end of the day everything is still in our own hands: we have to win both games.

"By beating Japan and beating Saudi Arabia away, our goal difference is like an extra point. So, as I just said to the boys, they've got to get themselves ready to go back to their clubs and work hard and come back in a great fashion."

Heading into the Oman fixture, the biggest question facing Arnold was how he approached the composition of his side's midfield. Against Vietnam the previous week in Melbourne, his deployment of Mooy at the base of the midfield with Irvine and Rogic further ahead of them had empowered the latter to have one of his best ever games in a Socceroos shirt and effectively win the game for his side with two first-half goals.

But that performance had been delivered without Ajdin Hrustic due to yellow card accumulation and, with the Eintracht Frankfurt man now eligible to return against Oman, how the Socceroos coach would integrate arguably his most important creative outlet this campaign.

In the end, however, the coach opted to not fix what wasn't broken: starting the same midfield trio of Rogic, Irvine, and Mooy and, once again, deploying Irvine further up the field in a more similar manner to his role with club side St. Pauli in the 2. Bundesliga. And while the Socceroos gaffer wouldn't be rewarded with another effervescent performance from Rogic, the positioning of he and Irvine -- the latter would effectively take up a position as a second striker prior to Maclaren's penalty -- would once again help the Socceroos display a level of functionality with the ball that has been frustratingly absent throughout the third-phase of Asian qualification.

Simply by taking positions further up the field, Rogic and Irvine were once again able to afford Mooy space to operate in at the base of the midfield and, by nature of the defensive positioning that the Omanis were forced to take up in response, help to get their side up the pitch and win the territory battle. On the wings, Mat Leckie and Martin Boyle were given step to better come downhill at their opponents, with the Socceroos finding significant joy in attacking down the former's left side of the pitch and the latter able to get in behind and win his side's penalty after being picked out by a long ball forward by Irvine.

There was an air of positivity to the Socceroos play and while it had to carry the disclaimer that it was coming against a decidedly mid-tier Asian side in Oman that was missing several players due to COVID-19, when the referee blew his whistle to conclude the opening half, it ended perhaps the best 45 minutes of collective football Arnold had overseen in this window.

But by nature of its design, while the Socceroos formation against the Omanis did give them greater scope in getting up the pitch and playing more expansive football, it did expose them to a greater risk in defensive transition than their traditional double pivot. First hinted at when Fawaz was just unable to get a volleyed effort on target as Oman broke in transition in the 49th minute, a slow start to the second half from the Socceroos brought the latter part of that tradeoff well and truly to the fore when the 25-year-old made no mistake with his second opportunity five minutes later -- launching an unstoppable blast into the top corner of the net that Mat Ryan had absolutely no hope of saving.

It might have only been 23 degrees centigrade overhead in Muscat, but the air at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex then became incredibly thick. Their tails up, Al-Ahmar began to push hard for a goal that would keep their hopes for Qatar alive and when the Socceroos would look to respond, would slow the game down with a combination of defensive work and gamesmanship that frustrated their foes. Conversely, the incisiveness and positivity in possession that had marked the Australian's first half was gone as both fatigue, Arnold's adjustments and the reality of what a solitary point meant came into view.

Under such circumstances, the Australian's urge to retreat back to a double pivot and weather the storm would have been there, but the compulsion was resisted long enough for an equaliser to be found: numbers piling into the area and Mooy arriving late to seize on a second ball and hammer home the goal that could have been the winner. Nonetheless, with that double pivot then initiated through Irvine and the newly introduced James Jeggo, the fadeout continued: Fawaz delivering a blow that could carry not just major ramifications for Australia's journey to Qatar, but its entire domestic landscape as a whole.