Australia pass Vietnam test but more will be needed for Japan trip on road to World Cup

Australia continued its perfect 2022 World Cup qualification campaign with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Vietnam at Hanoi's My Dinh National Stadium on Tuesday.

Following a 3-0 win over China last Friday, an injury to Hibernian attacker Martin Boyle forced Socceroos coach Graham Arnold to bring Riley McGree into his starting XI for the contest, while Seattle Sounders full-back Brad Smith was preferred to Aziz Behich.

But whereas the win over China was a simple one, Vietnam quickly demonstrated they would prove a much sterner test. They frustrated the Australians early and were unlucky not to win a penalty when Nguyen Phong Hong Duy seemingly had a shot ricochet off the arm of Rhyan Grant.

Handed a respite, the Sydney FC defender subsequently proved the difference between the two sides when he got on the end of an Ajdin Hrustic cross and headed in what was both the winner and his first-ever international goal.

Now on a 10-game winning streak, their best-ever run of form in Asian competition, the Socceroos will next return to action against Oman in October -- a fixture that has tentatively been marked for Sydney's Bankwest Stadium -- before heading to Saitama Stadium to take on rivals Japan. Pride intact but still looking for their first points, Vietnam is set to clash with China and Oman next month.

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Analysing where the Socceroos sit following their opening two games of the third phase of AFC World Cup qualification is a difficult proposition -- not helped by Australian football's tendency to provide polarised offerings of either uncritical praise or unthinking cavilling.

On the negative side of the coin, the areas that will need to be improved should a fifth-straight World Cup be reached are exceedingly obvious in examining the Vietnam clash in isolation; the performance hardly a shining example of free-spirited football that dazzles the neutral and invigorates the supporter. After putting three past China and looking good value for a few more, the Socceroos looked devoid of inspiration and largely toothless against the well-organised and highly disciplined defensive block of the hosts. When defending against moments of Vietnamese transition, they appeared shaky and, with a less sympathetic official, could easily have been forced to chase the game.

Yet games are never conducted in a vacuum, and in the overarching scheme of things, the 1-0 win represented an important landmark on the road to Qatar 2022. Even before a ball had been kicked, it was readily apparent that conditions both overhead and underfoot presented a situation far from ideal for any visiting side. Giving an insight into why Vietnam hadn't lost at home in six years coming in, the temperatures in Hanoi were nearly 30 degrees and humidity nearly 90% at kick-off and the playing surface was, to be charitable, of a poor standard.

Australia, undoubtedly, will run into a brick wall should they put forward a similar display against fellow heavyweights Japan or Saudi Arabia but at the same time, neither the Blue Samurai nor the Green Falcons are likely to cede 70% of possession and be content to bank on a rare moment in transition to steal a result -- meaning that the dynamics of these games will be vastly different to this game. And ultimately, World Cup qualification isn't earned through style points. At this phase, World Cup dreams largely rest upon teams doing the job at home and then scratching as many points and clean sheets as they can source on the road -- one only needs to look at Japan's shock opening defeat against Oman to know how difficult that can be.

The Socceroos are now two wins from two, set to end the opening international break of the third phase of AFC qualification within the automatic World Cup qualification slots and, according to bombastic declarations from Football Australia, due to return to Australia for an international fixture for the first time since 2019 against Oman next month. Things could certainly be a lot worse.

Searching for a key

In examining the actual nuts and bolts of the Socceroos win, especially in contrast to the carefree ease with which China were dispatched in their opening game, it becomes clear why this game was a slog. As was anticipated by Arnold heading in, the hosts -- ranked 57 places below the visitors in the FIFA World Ranking -- swiftly retreated into a deeply embedded defensive block without the ball following the opening kick-off: at least 10 men in red getting behind the ball in response to the first pokes and prods from the Socceroos in the opening minutes.

But while this approach wouldn't have startled, Arnold's complete lack of surprise didn't make the task of breaking the fortifications erected in front of them any easier. Though Hrustic and Tom Rogic, in particular, flashed signs of inspiration, those in green-and-gold, confronted with a wall of defenders around the penalty area, found themselves resorting to a fruitless tactic of looping balls into the penalty area that could be nodded onwards or knocked down into the path of a teammate as the first half wore on.

Tellingly, Grant's eventual breakthrough arrived not off a breakthrough moment of inspiration but of a broken piece of play: Vietnam caught out as they sought to clear their lines and punished by the Sydney FC defender streaking in unsighted at the back post (that's to take nothing away from Hrustic's delivery to set up the goal; his first-time, left-footed cross that bent away from goalkeeper Dang Van Lam the exact ball that needed to be made.)

Goals, of course, change games and the dynamic did subsequently shift as a result of Grant's first international goal but, as opposed to opening up the hosts, it seemingly only served to increase the conservatism in the Socceroos' approach. A winning margin now in hand and the conditions increasingly suffocating, the second half saw a marked decrease in the appetite for risk in approach by the visitors -- speculative passes and storming runs seemingly now not worth the risk of Vietnam taking advantage of the space they would create in the event of a turnover.

In the end, time seemed to stand still as Arnold's side saw the game out -- each sideways pass and pause on the ball grinding another piece of sand through the hourglass marking time remaining.

No disgrace for Vietnam

It may have taken until the seventh minute for the Vietnamese to possess the ball in the Australian half, but when they did, they did so with malice: advancing rapidly in transition setting Nguyen Quang Hai up to fire an effort over the bar of Mat Ryan -- the first shot of the game from either side.

On their second real attack in the 28th minute, coach Park Hang-Seo's team was desperately unlucky to not win a penalty that could have seen them take a 1-0 lead when they again drove forward, the Socceroos' defence on its heels, moved from right to left and worked the ball to overlapping full-back Hong Duy. At first glance, the resulting long-range shot was only prevented from challenging Ryan by the arm of Grant and when the official was summoned by the VAR to examine the monitor on the sideline in the aftermath, a penalty appeared all but certain. Fortune, however, would smile on the Australians.

None of their further forays forward would create the same sort of clear chances -- the chaos that saw Ryan leave is net exposed when he misjudged a long ball forward in the 77th minute perhaps the most notable -- but the clarity of purpose in transition displayed by the Golden Star Warriors when the Socceroos' play broke down persistently threatened. Under no illusions about what they wanted to accomplish in order to secure a point or, perhaps, a famous upset win, Hang-Seo's team was provided with clear instructions and executed them with enough efficiency to send a scare through their highly rated foes.

Combined with the sense of belief and refusal to wilt in the face of Saudi Arabia in their opening fixture and the future, two of their group's heavy-hitters already faced, bodes well for Vietnam recording a respectable points total in their first appearance in the third stage of AFC qualification.