A much improved Socceroos performance was rewarded with a comprehensive 3-0 scoreline at the full-time whistle, with goals from Jamie Maclaren, Awer Mabil and Apostolos Giannou guiding them past Palestine in Dubai on Friday.
Australia’s early pressure failed to bear fruit in the opening exchanges, but two strikes in as many minutes turned that pressure into a tangible advantage on the scoreboard on 18 through 20 minutes.
The first was a deftly-flicked header from Hibernian front man Maclaren, profiting from a superb Tom Rogic ball for his first international goal, before Chris Ikonomidis produced a cross of the same calibre allowing Mabil to prod home at the back post.
Despite a seemingly more expansive and free-flowing approach in the second half, Graham Arnold’s side was unable to add the third until the dying minutes of the contest when substitute Giannou nodded past the goalkeeper from another perfect Ikonomidis cross to cap off a crucial win.
Apostolos Giannou came off the bench to make it 3️⃣-0️⃣!
— Socceroos (@Socceroos) January 12, 2019
Arnold demands a response and gets one
After the disappointment of defeat in the opening group game against Jordan, a response was needed from Arnold and his players- and a response there was. From the opening whistle the intent was evident in the way the Socceroos moved the ball; purposeful, fast-paced and sharp passes that looked to break the lines of the Palestine defensive setup.
In Aziz Behich and Rhyan Grant, Australia had two fantastic outlets in wide areas as they consistently linked up with Mabil and Ikonomidis down their respective flanks to great effect, and were two of the best in the green and gold in this match.
The two wingers themselves were also impressive and staked their claim for a spot in the Socceroos’ best XI, in particular Ikonomidis who laid two wonderful assists and showed the same quality that has helped Perth Glory to top spot on the A-League ladder this season.
Much maligned for his output in the Jordan game, Rogic turned it around with a gorgeous assist and a powerful midfield performance, showcasing why he is so loved by Celtic fans in the Scottish capital and why they were desperately disappointed to have him missing the Old Firm Derby.
A must-win game requires a winning display and Arnold certainly got that from his players when it was most needed, as sights turn to the clash with Syria in order to confirm their place in the knockout stages.
Return of the Mac
It has been a difficult beginning for Maclaren in the Socceroos shirt. Largely overlooked by Bert van Marwijk at the World Cup, the 25-year-old has been made to fight for regular playing time for his country.
Under Arnold, while he has been offered greater opportunity on the pitch, he had yet to fully impress and etch his name onto a scoresheet in the green and gold until this clash.
After an air-swing from a big goalscoring opportunity in the early goings, it seemed as though Maclaren may continue his frustrations for the national team as aside from that chance he toiled without luck in the final third.
This guy was on fire last night 🔥
— Daily Football Show (@DFS_AUS) January 11, 2019
On 18 minutes, however, the relief was there for all to see in his celebration as he finally opened his account for his country, a wonderfully taken header from the diminutive striker.
With time and confidence, Maclaren will only go from strength to strength, though one feels as though the former Brisbane Roar man must find his feet and with it, consistency at club level once the Asian Cup is complete.
The best is yet to come
While there was a marked improvement, there is still more to come from the team that took it to the world champion France last June and claimed the 2015 Asian Cup in Sydney.
Under the new regime with the returning Arnold, understandably there will have to be a period of adaptation and learning for each of the players and for the manager himself as strengths and weaknesses are identified in the squad.
The more consistently the side continues to perform, the better the future will look, allowing for continued growth and improvement as they look to create a period of dominance in Asian football.
Fans, players and staff alike must be wary of looking too deep into the tournament too quickly, as they face another must-win encounter with Syria in their final group match, a side that were resolute and were just overcome by the Australians in the World Cup qualification playoffs in late 2017.
With a number of impressive sides challenging for the ultimate prize, the Socceroos still have improvements to make if they are to lift the trophy, but they are improvements that the squad are definitely capable of making and are already showing signs of reaching.