Tough sides await the Socceroos on road to World Cup

Tim Cahilll will again lead the Socceroos charge. Photo: AAP Image
Tim Cahilll will again lead the Socceroos charge. Photo: AAP Image

At first glance of Australia's final qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup you can't help but think "gee, it's going to be tough".

The Socceroos will face Japan (ranked 57th), Saudi Arabia (60th), the UAE (68th), Iraq (105th) and Thailand (119th) twice each (home and away) in Asian Group B, for the right to go to Russia.

Of course, those first three nations are not going to be easy, especially away from home.   Even Iraq and Thailand will pose some problems - Iraq made the semi-final stage of the Asian Cup last year, and Thailand is a football-mad nation of almost 70 million people.   But it still does not compare to facing Uruguay, with a proud football pedigree, on its home soil, like Australia did in its failed attempt to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.

Uruguay is currently ranked ninth in the world.

That was why there was such an outpouring of joy when the Socceroos turned the tables on Uruguay and beat them on that magical night in Sydney more than 10 years ago, to qualify for the 2006 global showpiece.

It was also the last time Australia had to go through its knife-edge qualification process of meeting the fifth-placed South American team, after winning the Oceania qualifying tournament, before switching to the Asian confederation.

After joining Asia, Australia comfortably made it to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.

While this time might not be as comfortable - given the quality teams the Socceroos must face - they are still expected to qualify for Russia 2018.

Winning last year's Asian Cup, the growth of the A-League and holding 50th spot in the global rankings brings that pressure and expectation.

The mindset from the Socceroos, driven by fiercely determined coach Ange Postecoglou, is now one that encourages the players to believe they can beat anyone.

They proved that by holding the defending world champions Germany to a 2-all draw on their home soil, soon after their Asian Cup triumph.  

"Sometimes I've felt we've played Japan or Korea and they've dominated the game but we've still got a result out of it," Postecoglou said recently, telling how hungry his squad now is. 

"I want to flip that on its head a little bit, not the result part but the performance.

"I'd like to think we could be dominant against them, particularly here at home, have more possession and put them on the back foot."  

And after the draw was announced, he spoke with confidence again, showing once more just how far Australian football has come.

"Over the last two years we have built up a very strong portfolio of information on most Asian nations ... that information will be sharpened and expanded now we know that we face Japan, Iraq, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Thailand," Postecoglou said.  

The Socceroos' 2018 World Cup final-round qualifiers: Sept 1, 2016: v Iraq at home; Sept 6, 2016: v UAE away; October 6, 2016: v Saudi Arabia away; October 11, 2016: v Japan at home; Nov 15, 2016: v Thailand away; March 23, 2017: v Iraq away; March 28, 2017: v UAE at home; June 8, 2017: v Saudi Arabia at home; August 31, 2017: v Japan away; Sept 5, 2017: v Thailand at home.

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