Australia’s bid to reach a fourth successive FIFA World Cup will be tested at the Adelaide Oval on Thursday evening against Saudi Arabia.
The Socceroos have stuttered through the third round of World Cup qualifying and, as a result, do not occupy one of the top two places in Group B that come with a guaranteed berth at Russia 2018, with just three qualifiers to play.
As it stands, Ange Postecoglou’s side would have to win a two-legged playoff against the third-placed side from Group A of Asian qualifying – likely to be South Korea or Uzbekistan – and then another playoff against the fourth-placed side in CONCACAF qualifying, currently the United States, to reach the World Cup.
However, all of that can change with a win against the Saudis, who are three points ahead of Australia, and ex-Socceroos captain Craig Foster is confident of victory.
“It is the most critical match of our group so far, given the Japan game [away] is still to come,” Foster told The New Daily.
“It’s at home and it’s obviously a must-win match. But I don’t think we need to be any more concerned or nervous than normal.
“We can comfortably win the match. Our home record is strong. Like we’ve done for the last 50 years, we’ve got to do the job at home.”
A draw or a defeat in Adelaide will dramatically increase the chances of Australia having to go through the playoffs.
And even though the Socceroos reached the 1974 and 2006 World Cups through the playoffs, most fans have bad memories of defeats against the likes of Iran, Uruguay and Argentina in the format.
Foster, who played in the infamous 1997 clashes against Iran, said even if Australia fail to qualify for the 2018 event automatically, the playoffs should hold no fear for them.
“CONCACAF [North American qualifying] is not CONMEBOL [South American qualifying] and that’s a significant positive,” he said.
“Even if we have to go through the playoffs, I think we’d be an exceptionally good bet to make the World Cup.
“Maybe that’s why I’m not so stressed about the match [on Thursday].
“We are more than good enough to win if we have to go through the playoffs.
“And if not, we probably don’t deserve to be there. We weren’t able to beat Iran so we didn’t deserve it.
“The thing about this group … winning the Asian Cup was a big learning moment. Succeeding in a moment like that should give the team confidence [if they play in the playoffs].”
Postecoglou will hope the playoffs aren’t required and has recently made tweaks to his tactical system – something Foster says may give Saudi Arabia more of a chance of causing an upset in Adelaide.
“The system of play has changed and that introduces an element of uncertainty,” he said.
“The change of system over the last couple of games changes many things, like what the team does in attacking moments, build-up play, where you can get hurt.
“There’s a strong likelihood that other nations have started to adapt to us and the way we play.”
Nevertheless, Foster remains buoyant, and cited the recent performances of midfielders Tom Rogic and Aaron Mooy – who helped Celtic and Huddersfield Town to trophies last month – as lifting the feeling around Australian football.
“These last few months have been very nice for all of us,” he said.
“It takes us back 10 years to when we had Jason [Culina], Bresc [Marco Bresciano], Lucas [Neill], Chippers [Scott Chipperfield] performing at a high level.
“We are just starting to get players back playing at a reasonable level.
“There’s a long way to go but it’s been really positive.”