Shocking start as Socceroos fall 1-0 to Jordan in Asian Cup opener
Al Ain: Australia's Asian Cup defence is off to the worst possible start after a sobering 1-0 defeat to Jordan in Al Ain on Sunday.
A small but vocal crowd at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium saw the reigning champions shocked by the world's 109th-ranked nation, who claimed just their second win under Belgian coach Vital Borkelmans – and only their fifth in the tournament's history – with a set-piece goal in the first half.
Coach Graham Arnold had made grand promises about how the Socceroos would play on his watch but the same old problems resurfaced. And this time, there was no magical Tim Cahill moment to bail them out.
They had more than enough chances to claw themselves back into it late on, but players repeatedly seized up in front of goal as a stacked Jordanian defence held on for dear life, taking every opportunity in the process to milk the clock by feigning cramp.
This is Arnold's second Asian Cup in charge of the Socceroos, and with tricky matches against Palestine and Syria to come, it is on course to end like his first did: early.
Australia had a staggering 73 per cent of possession in the first half but only four shots on goal and absolutely zero sharpness. They were lethargic, ponderous and played right into Jordan's hands.
Jordan looked up for it for the very first minute, packing their midfield to leave little space for the Socceroos to play through to their much-vaunted new front three. Borkelmans clearly did his homework, with his tactics forcing them out wide and encouraging their fullbacks to push up the pitch.
When the Socceroos turned the ball over, it left them hugely vulnerable on the counter-attack with Aziz Behich and Josh Risdon out of position.
Meanwhile, striker Jamie Maclaren – a last-minute inclusion for Andrew Nabbout, who injured his groin in the final minutes of the team's final training session on Saturday – was once again completely isolated and could not get into the game. But he wasn't alone there.
'The Chivalrous' took what felt like an inevitable lead in the 26th minute. It was a simple corner routine – Musa Al-Taamari's delivery found Anas Bani-Yaseen, who shed his marker Massimo Luongo and nodded the ball into the back of the net.
Four minutes later, it would have been 2-0 were it not for a miraculous Mathew Ryan save. Al-Taamari drew a foul from Trent Sainsbury on the edge of the penalty area and Baha' Abdel-Rahman stepped up to take the free kick, pulling his shorts up like he was Cristiano Ronaldo as he lined his shot up. It was a terrific effort, but Ryan got a palm to it and pushed it into the crossbar.
The Socceroos were rattled – and, to make matters even worse, a seemingly clear-cut shout for a penalty was waved away by Omani referee Ahmed Al-Kaf just before the break. Robbie Kruse's cross appeared to catch the outstretched hand of Feras Shelbaieh, but Al-Kaf was not interested, and with no video assistant referee at the Asian Cup until the quarter-finals, that was that.
Arnold's response was to change his right fullback, throwing his former Sydney FC charge Rhyan Grant on for just his third international cap at half-time at the expense of Risdon. Robbie Kruse was also swapped for Chris Ikonomidis 10 minutes later.
It didn't do much good. A slightly improved Australia continued to have plenty of the play but lacked a cutting edge. In the 62nd minute, Tom Rogic had the kind of long-distance shot that supporters are accustomed to seeing him bury for Celtic, but Jordan's captain and goalkeeper Amer Shafi had it covered.
Rogic had another golden chance from close range in the 72nd minute when Aziz Behich cut back to him, but he blazed it well over the target from 15 yards out.
It was Awer Mabil's turn in the 78th minute, rattling the upright with a powerful drive – but the rebound didn't fall favourably for any of his teammates. Australia's third substitute, Jackson Irvine, then headed wide in the 82nd.
The chances kept coming. Maclaren appeared to finally have his first international goal a few minutes later, smacking a loose ball into the back of the net. But just as he ran off to celebrate, the assistant referee flagged for offside.
The final one fell to Irvine, who came agonisingly close to tipping in the rebound from Shafi's save to deny Ikonomidis. Somehow, Shafi pulled out another miracle stop, the final whistle sounded, and the rest of the Jordanian team sprinted to him to celebrate one of their most historic victories.
Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.