If Australia beats Japan in Tokyo on Thursday night, the Socceroos will secure a spot in next year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia.
As the team headed to Japan, the task looked a lot more complicated, but the United Arab Emirates’ upset 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia has changed the equation – in Australia’s favour.
With the top two teams in the group gaining automatic qualification to the World Cup, there’s now only one point between Japan (17), Saudi Arabia (16) and Australia (16).
Should Ange Postecoglou’s team manage a first win on Japanese soil, it would move to the top of the table on 19 points, leaving the Saudis and the Blue Samurai to fight out a winner-take-all final clash next week in Jeddah.
“The sky’s a little bit brighter with Saudi losing, but it could darken again,” former Socceroo Robbie Slater told The New Daily.
“We’ve still got to get a result in Japan – and Japan needs to win now.
“There’s still the scenario that if we lose to Japan and the Saudis beat Japan in that last game, we could still finish in that third position [and have to try and qualify through the play-offs].
“You don’t want to run that risk, so the game is still very high stakes.
“We’re in Japan, and they’re on the cusp of qualification themselves.”
When the Socceroos last ventured to Japan’s Saitama Stadium four years ago, it was the third-last qualification match for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Tommy Oar gave Australia a 1-0 lead after 82 tense minutes, only for a handball in the 90th minute to allow the hosts to salvage a draw from the penalty spot.
“Nerves and tension are always there, but they just go up another level in this scenario,” Slater said.
“They’re favourites in front of their home crowd, and they’ve got wonderful players.”
After that draw, Australia needed to beat Iraq in its final qualifying match in Sydney to seal a place in Brazil, and Archie Thompson was nearby when Josh Kennedy finally netted the winner in the 83rd minute.
“Even though Japan’s on top of the group, they haven’t really been that impressive throughout the campaign,” Thompson told The New Daily.
“I think Japan are more worried about us than we need to be of them.”
Slater believes that the Australians will have gained confidence from their last outing at the Confederations Cup in Russia two months ago, a 1-1 draw with seventh-ranked Chile.
“But we’re going to need to be every bit as good as that again,” he said.
“I think Ange instils a great self-belief in our side and we might just do it [and win].”
Thompson agrees that Postecoglou’s positive approach is a key.
“It’s about attacking and winning. That’s been his mindset throughout his coaching career,” he said.
“He’s very calm and he’s got that team thinking they can win.”
Should Australia draw with Japan, victory in its final game against Thailand in Melbourne next Tuesday will secure its place in Russia.
However, a loss would mean that even with victory over Thailand, Saudi Arabia could finish equal on points if it beats Japan later that night.
Should that happen, it will come down to goal difference (both teams are currently +6), and if that’s the same for both teams, total goals scored (currently Saudi Arabia 10, Australia 8).
Should the goals scored also be equal, Australia would go through on their head-to-head results (a 2-2 draw last October in Jeddah followed by a 3-2 win in Adelaide in June).
Reaching the FIFA World Cup again may not produce the same emotion as Australia’s historic qualification in 2005, but it won’t be far off.
For the Socceroos, these matches are as big as they get.