Australia's loss to Japan in World Cup qualifying a missed opportunity for Socceroos

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Japan put their 2022 World Cup qualification campaign back on track with a 2-1 win over Australia on Tuesday, snapping the Socceroos' record 11-game winning streak in the process.

Despite entering the contest with two losses from their opening three matches of the final phase of Asian qualification and six points back of the Australians, coach Hajime Moriyasu's side took an eighth-minute lead in Tokyo when a cross from Takumi Minamino took a healthy deflection beyond defender Aziz Behich and to the feet of Ao Tanaka, who promptly fired in the opener.

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Trailing in a game for the first time since June 2019, the Socceroos were continuously frustrated in their efforts to find a way back into the game and Japan could have easily had a few more but, despite this, the visitors were able to drag it back to 1-1 after Adjin Hrustic converted a 69th-minute free kick which had initially been awarded as a penalty, only to be moved back by VAR review.

Nonetheless, despite their profligacy in the final third, Japan eventually found a deserved winner five minutes from time when Takuma Osano's deflected shot was parried away by Australia goalkeeper Mat Ryan only to be inadvertently bundled over the line by Behich as he desperately attempted to clear.

"I was very happy and proud of the performance," Graham Arnold said postmatch. "It was a great effort. Two sloppy goals, unfortunately, the second one was a deflection but I thought that at times, especially that second half, we dominated -- nearly the whole half.

"The win record is over but we still hold that record and it's a fantastic achievement by the players. I'm very proud of them. We can stop talking about that now and we can move forward now with the World Cup campaign. We're still in a great position and we move forward.

"It's always one game at a time. OK, tonight Japan came out, we had a great crack at them and they had a crack at us. It was an exciting game to watch. That's what I said before the game: we were going to go out there and give it a great crack and I was very, very proud of the boys and what they did."

Forced to lick their wounds and reassess after their first loss in over two years, the Socceroos will look to bounce back from the defeat when they face Saudi Arabia and China next month, when Japan have games against Vietnam and Oman.

The Game

Much had been made of the Socceroos winning streak heading into Tuesday's contest; the record-setting run held up at home as illustrative of the quality of the side and, in combination with their foes sputtering form, as an omen one of the best chances Australia would ever have to take a maiden win on Japanese soil loomed. It took less than 10 minutes for the hosts to prove the doubters wrong.

Desperately needing a win to keep their hopes of securing one of Group B's two automatic qualification places alive and keep their coach employed, Japan burst out of the blocks by probing the Socceroos' defence with few jabs down their left flank through Junya Ito -- giving Behich a bit of a warning of the torrid night that was to come -- before delivering a devastating hook through Tanaka.

If anything, that should have served as the moment where the hosts pressed their advantage in search of a second and possibly even a third, only for them to ease off instead. Moriyasu has drawn ire during his side's turgid start to the third phase of qualification for his conservatism, and there was a sense that, with a one-goal lead, he was content to allow the Socceroos more of the ball and use his side's pace and technicality on the counter.

Nonetheless, despite this seeming respite, the Socceroos didn't look like they were capable of responding for vast spells of the game. Though in theory the starting midfield quartet of Hrustic, Aaron Mooy, Jackson Irvine and Tom Rogic represented the best unit Arnold could have deployed, their inability to create anything approaching fluid build-up from defence to attack demonstrated that the composition of the midfield will always trump simply deploying the strongest personnel. This wasn't helped by a number of miss-hit passes and errors from the men in green-and-gold -- something Arnold attributed to a partisan Japanese home crowd. As a consequence, attackers Adam Taggart and Martin Boyle were left largely isolated and unable to impact play, something only marginally rectified when the latter shifted further inside in the second half.

While there were n signs of improvements from the Socceroos in the second half - either due to genuine improvement or Japan's inability to put the Socceroos away -- and Hrustic's peach of a free kick did offer some hope for the visitors of a smash-and-grab point, the Blue Samurai's ability to respond to the goal with an increasing ability to play through and over the Australia defence that became more embedded meant that their 85th minute had a sense of deserved inevitability around it.

What does it mean?

Disappointing as it may be to see a record-winning run end against a major rival no less, in the broader context Tuesday's loss doesn't represent anything close to a fatal blow to the Socceroos hopes of reaching a fifth-straight World Cup.

Despite the defeat, Arnold's side will end of this round of fixtures three points clear in one of Group B's two automatic qualification places and, ostensibly, will now be able to prepare for their remaining six games of qualification knowing that the most arduous task is now complete. A win over Saudi Arabia in their next fixture on Nov. 11 could easily see them reclaim top spot in the group and give the Socceroos a strong foundation of form to build upon ahead of games against the two weakest sides in the group: China and Vietnam.

Yet, given what might have been had the Socceroos been able to eke out the win, there is disappointment. Had Australia been able to take a point, they would have all-but eliminated Japan from the race for one of the two automatic qualification slots in the group and, with such a result also likely spelling the end for Moriyasu, placed their rivals under significant pressure in their remaining fixtures. Such a result would also have primed the Socceroos to enter their last two games of the campaign -- at home against Japan and then away to Saudi Arabia in March -- already qualified for Qatar 2022 and able to put their feet up. Now, while still in a strong position, those two games may suddenly carry significantly more stakes than they might have just 24 hours ago.

For Japan, meanwhile, Tuesday was the result they had to have. Now, rather than sit at least 10 points behind the top two teams in their group, they will head to Vietnam next month knowing that a win, combined with an Australia loss to the Saudis, would move them into second place in the group.

Questions for November

One major questions overshadows next month's clash with Saudi Arabia: where will the game be played? Tuesday's loss marked the 10th-straight competitive fixture that the Socceroos had to play outside on the road. Australia's stringent 14-day hotel quarantine procedure and its incompatibility with short FIFA international windows means that the national team's home fixtures since international football's return have been played at neutral venues in the Middle East.

In theory, Football Australia negotiating an arrangement with government and health authorities that will allow Australia's women's national team the Matildas to host Brazil in two games later this month bodes well for a similar arrangement for November's window -- although there has yet to be any official word from Football Australia or Government that this will be the case.

"I'm reaching out to the New South Wales government and really appealing to them to help us on this journey for the World Cup," Arnold said postmatch. "We're still four weeks away from this game, [and they can] really help us by allowing fans into the stadium. We've seen in the UK where it's 80% vaccinated and everyone has got full crowds again [NSW has fully vaccinated 74% of its population aged 16+ against COVID and is projected to vaccinate over 80% within a week].

"I do believe that the second half, we kicked into gear, we fought the crowd, we did very well and got back to 1-1 and then probably, again, the crowd noise and the energy the crowd gave the Japanese players in the last ten to 15 minutes really helped get them home.

"So, again, I really appeal to the government to helps us and help us on this journey to qualify for a World Cup. NSW is open now, so please help us. We need our crowd back."