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London: After a whole lot of something, it was an absolutely nothing ball that undid the Socceroos. Having outplayed England for almost an hour in their long-awaited debut at Wembley Stadium, a piece of crap defending burst the bubble.
The more you watch it, the more you wonder how it was allowed to happen, this momentary lapse that pushed Graham Arnold’s “boxing kangaroos” onto the back foot – the second phase of an English free kick, a speculative long ball pumped into the box by Trent Alexander-Arnold, thumped across the face of goal by Jack Grealish and bundled in at the back stick by Ollie Watkins. Where were the flying limbs of Harry Souttar and Cameron Burgess, which had reliably snuffed out all previous threats? The hands on Australian heads and hips in the immediate aftermath said it all.
Trent Alexander-Arnold of England battles for possession with Australia’s Harry Souttar.Credit: Getty
This one hurts. It was only a friendly, sure, but this 1-0 defeat was an opportunity missed, another chance for the Socceroos to make a big statement to an audience that – Ange Postecoglou’s ongoing Tottenham Hotspur miracle notwithstanding – still thinks Australians don’t really get this game.
Maybe at some level a statement was still made. Prior to the goal, it is no exaggeration to say the Socceroos had the better of the chances, and were maybe even the better team, their fearless play silencing the sold-out crowd of 81,116 at England’s national stadium. The punters came for an easy kill; it was anything but.
Buoyed by the spirit of Upton Park in 2003, with that mid-week pump-up from Postecoglou and Guus Hiddink still ringing in their years, Arnold’s men refused to yield. They’ve made a habit of that recently, this team, and it deserves to be better recognised, both at home and abroad.
Granted, this wasn’t England’s strongest line-up. Arnold spoke at his pre-match press conference about how, in that famous win 20 years ago, the Socceroos took then-England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson’s plan to swap his entire team at half-time as a sign of disrespect. Perhaps he saw a bit of that in Gareth Southgate’s team sheet: the big guns, like Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham, Marcus Rashford and Declan Rice were all on the bench, clearly with an eye to their Euros qualifier with Italy on Tuesday night, while Chelsea defender Levi Colwill was handed his international debut. Of those substitutes, only Rashford saw any minutes.
Ollie Watkins celebrates after scoring England’s first goal.Credit: Getty
But that’s not to say England rolled out a “weak” team by any stretch, at least if we’re comparing stature for stature. James Maddison, Postecoglou’s star signing at Tottenham, was in midfield next to former Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson, while Alexander-Arnold was at right-back and Grealish on one wing, with Jarrod Bowen on the other.
And it was that other wing where Australia’s initial weakness lay. For the second successive match, Arnold opted to play Kye Rowles, a central defender, out of position at left-back, despite having two naturals in Jordan Bos and Aziz Behich in the squad. Clearly he’s trying something, and friendlies are the time to do it – but it nearly cost the Socceroos seven minutes into the contest, when Bowen cut inside Rowles and found Conor Gallagher, whose grounded cross into the six-yard box fortunately did not find a target, slipping past Maddison and then between the legs of Watkins.
From then on, though, the visitors were on top. Keanu Baccus had a curling shot on goal tipped wide by Sam Johnstone, then 10 minutes later, a first-time last by Mitchell Duke at Martin Boyle’s cross flashed only just past the post. At a corner kick not long after that, Rowles had a lash from close range; he, too, probably should have scored.
And so should have Watkins, breaking free on the left as England sprang forward immediately after that corner kick. He got in behind and rounded Maty Ryan, but his shot bounced off the post, and the ball was cleared to safety by Cameron Burgess. Yet, the Socceroos kept coming, and just before half-time, a brilliant ball from Baccus put Martin Boyle through, and his lay-off for Ryan Strain was only just kept out by a diving Lewis Dunk. The corner of gold-clad Aussies at the other end were loving it.
They picked up right where they left off in the second half, but simply went to sleep for the goal; there’s no other way to put it. From that moment, the game lost its sting, and then its fluency as both sides rang the changes. Australia never stopped, and came close to an equaliser when Connor Metcalfe hit the post at a corner kick in the 80th minute. But they didn’t get what they came for.
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