Sydney: Australia are banking on pace and versatility up front to win back-to-back Asian Cups as they embark on a new era without stalwarts Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak. The defending champions open against Jordan in an early game in Al Ain on Sunday.
The Socceroos are a different beast to Ange Postecoglou’s team that beat South Korea in extra time to lift the trophy on home soil in 2015.
They have a new coach in Graham Arnold and a mostly inexperienced squad, with the majority of the 23 in the UAE never having experienced the cut and thrust of Asian Cup football before.
Since taking the reins after Australia’s poor showing at their fourth consecutive World Cup in Russia under Bert van Marwijk, Arnold has asserted his authority with the team unbeaten in his four games in charge.
He has jettisoned several players and changed the style of play.
For years ago, Australia used to have one target man up front — usually Cahill — but the traditional centre forward role has been replaced with an attacking trio.
“The need for speed is up front,” Arnold declared, naming a host of players who can “make a difference” in such a role — Matt Leckie, Jamie Maclaren, Andrew Nabbout, Chris Ikonomidis, Awer Mabil, Robbie Kruse and Tom Rogic.
“They’re technically very good but quick,” he said. “People talk about the goalscoring side of it — we’ve got goalscorers everywhere.”
Arnold is keeping opposition teams guessing who will lead the line. McLaren and Leckie would seem to be the front-runners.
He was also banking on Martin Boyle, but the Hibernian striker was ruled out of the eve of the tournament after picking up a knee injury in their 5-0 rout of Oman in a warm-up game on Sunday.
It is a blow for Australia with Boyle already scoring two goals in three appearances for a country he had never even visited until Arnold travelled to Edinburgh to convince him to switch allegiances in recent months.
Australia are already without midfielders Daniel Arzani and Aaron Mooy due to knee injuries.
When Cahill has not played, Australia have struggled to get goals and former long-time Socceroos goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer said he was a hard act to follow.
“Timmy has always been a real force,” he told reporters. “Whenever you lose one of those players, it’s very difficult to replace them.
“But when they move on, it allows other players to develop and come into their own and step up. Everything is up for grabs.”
Arnold has opted for a mix of old and new. Mark Milligan, Kruse and Leckie have plenty of experience, while there are youthful additions such as Chris Ikonomidis and Mabil, a Sudanese refugee who came to Australia in 2006 and made his debut in October.
Only South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia have managed back-to-back Asian Cup titles. Australia first need to get through Group B, which also includes Jordan, Syria and Palestine.
Schwarzer pointed to South Korea and Japan as Australia’s biggest threats, and said anything less than making the semis would be a failure.
“We’ve qualified for four consecutive World Cups, and are currently Asian Cup champions so there’s a very high bar in the national team,” he said.
“The players they know what I expect from them and it’s about attitude and character and we go into this tournament with that intact.
“We have seven games and I expect to win every game.”