Socceroos out to ram home continental supremacy


Australia would make a massive statement to the rest of the continent if they became the first team since Japan in 2004 to win a second straight AFC Asian Cup.

Asia's blue ribbon event for nations kicked off in 1956 with a four-team round robin in Hong Kong which was won by Korea Republic.

Now in its 17th edition, the Asian Cup will have 24 teams for the first time when proceedings get under way in Abu Dhabi. Host country United Arab Emirates will take on Bahrain on January 6 (AEDT).

Later in the day Australia open their defence of the title they won in 2015 when they take on Jordan in Al Ain.

It is hard to believe that it is four years since Ange Postecoglou led the national team to their first ever major honour amid widespread acclaim in the country.

The Socceroos have a new coach in Graham Arnold and the personnel has changed significantly since the green and gold refused to be shaken by Korea Republic's late, late equaliser and kept their nerve in extra-time to prevail 2-1.

Yet the expectations, ambitions and aspirations of the team remain unchanged and Arnold has already set a significant marker by declaring that the Socceroos will try to win every match.

The Socceroos' record in the Asian Cup since Australia joined the AFC in January 2006 is highly respectable: a quarter-final defeat on penalties to Japan in Hanoi in 2007, another loss in extra-time in the final against Japan in Doha in 2011 and finally the historic victory over Korea in Sydney in 2015.

There is no doubt that Australia are widely - begrudgingly in some quarters - regarded as one of Asia's heavyweights, up there with Japan, Korea and Iran.

Yet their reputation in the region and beyond would be considerably enhanced if they were to prevail in the next month and retain the trophy.

Only two teams (Saudi Arabia in 1984 and 1988) and Japan (in 2000 and 2004) have won the trophy twice in succession since the competition went to 10 teams in 1980.

It also would send a message to the rest of Asia that the modern Socceroos are not merely a consistent and feared team at home but one that is strong enough to prevail abroad.

Australia will play Jordan, Palestine and Syria in the group phase and will be looking to qualify for the knockout stages after two games in order to be able to give a few players a rest in the third match in view of the more demanding matches ahead.

Arnold has a strong squad with quality, experience and potential right across the group of 23. It's just a shame that playmaker Aaron Mooy won't be part of the action due to the knee injury he suffered while playing for Huddersfield Town.

Hertha Berlin winger Mathew Leckie, who was probably Australia's best player in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, is dealing with a hamstring problem and is expected to miss the first phase of the tournament.

It is common knowledge that the Socceroos' achilles heel is scoring goals and now that record goalscorer Tim Cahill has retired the problem has become more acute.

Arnold does not have an out-and-out number nine and will try to compensate by making the front third as flexible and mobile as can be, with the players urged to show their individual skills within the team's framework.

Arnold should be well served in midfield and in defence where former Central Coast Mariners stars Tom Rogic, Trent Sainsbury and Mat Ryan along with Milos Degenek are making a name for themselves in Europe with Celtic, PSV Eindhoven, Brighton and Hove Albion and Red Star Belgrade respectively.

The winner of the tournament is anybody's guess at the moment and there is no question that it will be very hard for the Socceroos to repeat the uplifting success of four years ago.

Yet one vital factor stands out in their favour: motivation.

Australians traditionally are at their best when faced with a stiff challenge or when they have a point to prove.

Arnold will be keen to confirm that he has learned a lot since given the team's reins for the 2007 tournament, his first assignment as senior coach, and the team will be out to prove that they are just as strong and competitive in an away environment as they are on home territory.