Socceroos have it all to do against Peru, but World Cup remains a real possibility | Emma Kemp

the last – and some – time Australia Peru was at the 2018 World Cup. Bert van Marwijk was the stop-gap Socceroos coach, 38-year-old Tim Cahill came off the bench for the last competitive game of his international career, and Australia as a country collectively tried to figure out where the goals of open play.

In reality, that unenviable job actually belonged to Graham Arnold, who sat in the stands in Sochi and would take over from Van Marwijk as soon as the team boarded the plane home from Russia. Peru came out with 2-0 wins to celebrate their first World Cup win in 40 years. Their Argentine manager, Ricardo Gareca, had won hearts and minds by qualifying the unknown country for their first final since 1982.

The match was the last of the Group C matches and actually had no tangible impact on either side – France and Denmark had already sealed their progress as the top two countries. But when they meet again next Monday night (Tuesday 04:00 AEST) for a sudden death play-off in Doha, the outcome will be very important.

The fact that Peru is so close again is wild as Peruvian national football is not in a good place and the national team has no names playing for top European clubs. Sounds familiar? Gareca, who manages to squeeze his team into Conmebol’s fifth-seeded playoff for Colombia and Chile, is hitting above his weight.

Australia’s position as of Wednesday morning also beat expectations, especially as they were lowered in line with recent poor results. Many outside the team camp did not predict that they would conquer the United Arab Emirates. There was a sense that this stop-start qualifying campaign was coming to an end.

Except they haven’t, and for at least six more days there’s a very real possibility that they won’t – that the Socceroos might still face France, Denmark and Tunisia in November, in an eerily similar group to 2018.

That doesn’t dispel previous concerns about this side’s ability to do this, which remain. Although he was more compact at the back against the UAE, there were still defensive problems, particularly with regard to space repeatedly uncovered behind fullback Nathaniel Atkinson, who endured a difficult second international game against the frankly excellent 19-year-old winger , Harib Abdalla.

Graham Arnold full time.
Graham Arnold full time. Photo: Noushad Thekkayil/EPA

That small matter of scoring from open play remains an issue four years after that last encounter with Peru and, true to form, one of Australia’s two goals came from a set piece. But Jackson Irvine’s opener was honest and straight in the back of an attacking phase, and it’s very hard to see Ajdin Hrustic’s winner – a volley from a corner – and be displeased. Playing for Europa League winners Eintracht Frankfurt was clearly a revelation for the 25-year-old, who has cemented himself as the bright spark of this qualifying cycle and could hold the key to unlocking Peru.

And it’s not impossible. On paper and based on recent achievements, a Socceroos win is unlikely. But just about anything can happen in one-off matches, especially those at neutral ground and with so much to play for.

Arnold and his team have taken advantage of this opportunity by highlighting the benefits of owning “Aussie DNA”. It sounds trite, and also drifts quite close to the teased ‘Australian values’ discourse. However, the sentiment has a purpose. And if it works, good.

“That’s what I drove to the guys…about the Aussie DNA,” Arnold said after the game. “And that’s fighting, scratching and doing what you have to do to win the game. However we win, who cares? Just win.”

Getting a win can partly depend on the fitness of his team members. Striker Adam Taggart is racing against the clock as he deals with another injury – this time to his thigh – that has prevented him from playing this game and at this stage it looks like he will be keeping him off the pitch next week as well. However, Trent Sainsbury could still be fit to return to his regular central defense spot, with Arnold indicating his knee was almost better.

High-performing boss Andrew Clark seems to have worked a miracle on Aaron Mooy, who lasted the full 90 minutes in his first competitive game all year, showing more signs of his old self with each incremental increase in his fitness.

All this could mean very little to Peru, which is ranked 22nd in the world and 42nd in Australia. “But we like people who say we don’t have a chance or we can’t achieve anything,” Arnold said. “That’s what I’ve come across these guys and sometimes you don’t play well, but you can still win by fighting and running and chasing and being aggressive. That too can be a success.”

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