Football is a game of narratives.
Each time two sides cross the touchline a storyline develops; a clear progression of events emerging as foes attempt to implement their vision for the game whilst simultaneously looking to stymie the attempts of their foes to do the same.
As is the case in fiction, there are twists and turns in football – be they the result of deliberate actions of one of the protagonists or a moment of random chance – that has the potential to rapidly alter the direction of a game’s story.
Such was the case in the Socceroos’ 3-0 victory over Kuwait in their first game of World Cup Qualifying on Wednesday morning.
Though he might not have known much about the Jackson Irvine shot that careened into his shins and into the back of the net, Mathew Leckie’s seventh-minute opener against Kuwait served as an important anchor in the Socceroos win.
The old cliché is that goals change games, and Leckie’s 10th goal in an Australian shirt served to set the tone for a successful opening to the Socceroos’ World Cup campaign.
Australia’s inability to break down highly organised, deep sitting defensive blocks is, at this stage, no secret. Opponents in Asia have demonstrated a clear ability to soak up the pressure of Socceroos’ attacks that become increasingly desperate in search of an opening goal before hitting them on the counter.
However, Leckie’s early goal severely limited the ability of the Kuwaitis to put such a plan into action.
Down 1-0 inside ten minutes, Al-Azraq were forced into the reactive role against Head Coach Graham Arnold’s side; needing to display initiative and come forward in an attempt to erase the deficit they were confronted with.
In stifling heat at the Al Kuwait Sports Club Stadium, the Socceroos were also afforded the luxury of not needing to hurl themselves forward in a desperate attempt to find themselves an opening goal as oppressive conditions and a hostile crowd sapped their poise, incisiveness and cohesion.
Ultimately, the early goal also served to empower the Socceroos with trust in their purpose and confidence in their abilities.
When Leckie – in a much more convincing manner – swivelled and fired home a well-struck header from Irvine on the half an hour mark the direction of the game was clear and those in green and gold shirts knew it.
Mooy’s 38th minute strike – just his sixth goal in 40 caps – was a clear demonstration of both a player exhibiting the skills that have landed him in the Premier League and one that felt empowered by his side’s control of the contest.
Adam Taggart’s excellent assist, the striker reacting quickly to control the clearing punch of Sulaiman Abdulghafoor with his leg and lay the ball on a platter for Mooy, also served as a just reward for the efforts that were put in by the Suwon Bluewings man on Wednesday morning.
Though he failed to find the scoresheet, Taggart’s tireless efforts in the front third served as an important contributor for the Socceroos drives forward until his 68th minute substitution; the striker facilitating his teammates play in a manner that should see him move forward as the sides first-choice striker.
While the Kuwaitis were eventually able to exert some of their own influence on the game and some segments of the Socceroos’ play became sloppy as the game wore on – an area which will need to be tightened in future contests – three points and a 3-0 scoreline is a passing mark no matter how one spins it.
Zooming out from Wednesday morning’s contest and observing it in the greater scheme of qualification, the win was also an important marker in the story of the Socceroos journey to Qatar.
If early goals change games, then early wins change qualification campaigns and the win earned in Kuwait is important for Arnold’s side not only because of what immediate narratives they create – three points earned on the road against tough opposition, winning start to the campaign, a win in stifling conditions, job done etc. – but also those that it helps avoid.
Though Australia was favoured coming into the game, Kuwait was an obvious banana peel for a side that has seemingly made a habit of slipping over the discarded skins of fruit in recent years.
A loss, draw or perhaps even a jammy 1-0 win would have – quite rightly – led to a torrent of questions surrounding the potential of a side that inspired Arnold, ahead of the game, to say “In my mindset, I believe that at the end of this we’ll be the greatest Socceroos team ever.”
Such statements do not endear Arnold towards an Australian footballing public that has demonstrated scepticism towards his tactical and temperamental suitability for the task of guiding Australia to Qatar 2022.
A more disappointing result against Kuwait would have heaped fuel on discussions surrounding Australia’s capabilities against West Asian opposition, performances under Arnold and whether this campaign was the campaign would be the one in which the Socceroos failed to secure a place at the world’s biggest sporting event.
Those narratives, of course, have not been exorcised against a Kuwaiti side that produced a performance that can, at best, be labelled as poor but they have at the very least been postponed.
But for now, the prevailing narrative surrounding the Socceroos heading into their clash with Nepal on October 10 will be one that is more positive in tone then negative.
It should lead to an infusion of confidence and dare in the squad heading into a fixture in which they should, to borrow a phrase from Australia’s Head Coach, be expected to win comfortably.