Australia’s U23s were, once again, forced to share the spoils with their New Zealand counterparts on Monday night as the two nations played out a 1-1 draw at Campbelltown Stadium.
With Lachlan Wales gifted the opening goal of the game in just the third minute of play after a calamitous error in judgment from New Zealand’s Conor Tracey and William Jones the stage initially appeared set for a comfortable Australian win; the goal putting the tails of the Olyroos early.
That breakthrough, though, would be the only time a wasteful Australia found the back of the net; the Kiwis able to bring it back to level-pegging just before halftime when Logan Rogerson fired a shot home.
Coming into the contest off the heels of a performance which was less than inspiring on Friday night in Wollongong, the shift put in by the Olyroos at Campbelltown Stadium once again showed clear room for improvement as the side prepares to try to end a 12-year absence from the Olympics at next January’s AFC U23 Championships.
Perhaps to be expected of a side made up almost entirely of A-League based players competing during that competition’s pre-season, stand-in Head Coach Gary van Egmond’s group lacked cohesion against their Trans-Tasman opponents; their best chances of the game coming not from incisive moments of skill but instead errors in possession from their Oceanic opposition.
Despite the disappointment to not secure a win against a nation they have historically had the wood over, the contest – or series – was by no means a complete disaster.
The Olyroos didn’t trail in either contest against the Kiwis and will have two more international windows to prepare for the coming AFC Championships in which foreign-based players – potentially including Daniel Arzani – will be integrated into the side. The press demonstrated by the attack has the potential to play havoc against opposing defences and the coming A-League season will also get much needed minutes into the bulk of the squad’s legs.
Nonetheless, the room for significant growth ahead of matches against Asia’s best U23 sides was obvious; with a lethal edge moving forward – both in the creation of quality attacking play and shooting – and a tightening of the screws against opponents in transition first on the agenda of van Egmond and permanent boss Graham Arnold.
Australia’s confidence was given a boost just minutes into the game when a calamitous exchange between New Zealand goalkeeper Tracey and defender Jones opened the door for their early opener.
Too casual as he and Jones knocked the ball between each other from a goal kick, Tracey found himself charged down by Australian attackers Nick D’Agostino and Wales; the ball bouncing upward as Wales slid in with a challenge on the Kiwi custodian.
Quick as a flash, Melbourne City winger Wales then got up to head in, unchallenged, from close range and give his side a perfect start.
Wales should have made it 2-0 in the 11th minute when, following a wide Max Marta header up the other end, he was played through one-on-one with Tracey by D’Agostino.
The speedster, however, was unable to direct his effort to either side of the charging goalkeeper, enabling the 22-year-old to deflect the shot away.
Though Wales turned heads with his pace throughout the contest, the standout performer of the opening half was New Zealand’s Clayton Lewis.
The Scunthorpe United man showed a clarity of purpose and incisiveness in possession that separated him from the pack at Campbelltown Stadium; highlighted in the 22nd minute when he made Olyroos captain Brandon Wilson look silly as he weaved past him into the penalty area before lacing a cross across the face of goal that Mata was just unable to get a boot on to turn in.
Despite struggling for collective intent when they embarked on moves forward themselves, it cannot be said that Australia was without clear-cut chances to find the back of the net.
In an almost mirror image of the opening goal, Wales was able to yet again charge down an all too lethargic Tracey and force a turnover in the 28th minute; his cutback eventually trickling to an unmarked D’Agostino inside the penalty area.
Nonetheless, despite being gifted time, space and an open goal to shoot at D’Agostino, somehow, failed to get his effort on target.
Unable to capitalize on their chances, Australia was then punished for wastefulness just before halftime when Marta stole the ball off Wilson just inside the Australian’s half and sliced a pass forward to spring Lewis into space.
Showing great awareness, Lewis was then able to twist his body to cut the ball back behind himself to find the run of a trailing Rogerson who, despite getting to the ball second, was still able to come away with it and fire off a shot that beat Tom Heward-Belle and restore the game to equilibrium heading into the half.
Coming out strongly in the second period, the Kiwis then had a fine chance to grab the lead in the 52nd minute when bouncing ball fooled Tass Mourdoukoutas and allowed Myer Bevan to send an effort in on goal, forcing Heward-Belle into a save.
Riley McGree then had the chance to immediately respond up the other end when he got on the end of a high Denis Genreau cross that, eventually, came back down to earth only to place his shot just wide.
A nice bit of hold-up play after Adelaide United striker George Blackwood was picked out on the edge of the penalty area by Genreau led to the freeing of Wales for another strike at goal in the 65th minute but, once again, the resulting shot failed to hit the target for the Australians.
Looking to respond for the Kiwis up the other end in the 71st minute James McGarry drove forward through the midfield before thundering a shot in on goal but, despite appearing dangerous enough to entice Heward-Belle into a dive, it too sailed wide of the target.
The Kiwis had a series of late chances to win the game when Bevan and Dylan de Jong were able to get shots on target in the final five minutes but were, on both occasions, denied by saves from Heward-Belle.
Australia: 18. Tom Heward-Belle (GK), 2. Nathaniel Atkinson (Russell 84’), 6. Tass Mourdoukoutas (Rowles 66’), 8. Riley McGree, 9. George Blackwood, 10. Denis Genreau (Pasquali 66’), 13. Aiden O’Neill, 15. Nick D’Agostino (Silvera 59’), 16. Connor O’Toole (Vujica 84’), 19. Lachlan Wales, 22. Brandon Wilson (C)
Substitutes: 1. Thomas Glover (GK), 12. Daniel Margush (GK), 3. Samuel Silvera, 4. Kye Rowles, 5. Ivan Vujica, 7. Daniel De Silva, 11. Sebastian Pasquali, 17. Keanu Baccus, 20. Lachlan Brook, 21. Tate Russell, 23. Connor Metcalfe
New Zealand: 12. Conor Tracey (GK), 4. Hunter Ashworth (Stanger 46’), 6. Dane Schnell, 7. Myer Bevan, 9. Max Mata (Porter 63’), 10. Clayton Lewis, 13. James McGarry (de Jong 78’), 14. William Jones, 16. Gianni Stensness, 17. Logan Rogerson (Whyte 69’), 19. Noah Billingsley
Substitutes: 1. Cameron Brown (GK), 2. Jordan Spain, 3. Robert Tipelu, 5. George Stanger, 8. Jake Porter, 11. Oliver Whyte, 15. Sean Liddicoat, 18. Lachlan McIsaac, 20. Dylan de Jong