Socceroos have scope to experiment in World Cup qualifiers; PFA holds safety concerns in Asia

One of Australian football's two most important teams is back in action, multiple goalkeepers might be in action, and the PFA is raising the alarm about the Asian Champions League; this and more feature in another big ESPN Australia and New Zealand Wrap.

Socceroos Return

Australia's Men's National Team will return to international action this week, after what feels like an eternity, facing Kuwait on Jun, 3 (4.30 a.m., Jun, 4 AEST) before meeting Chinese Taipei, Nepal, and Jordan. All four World Cup qualifying matches will be played at Jaber al-Ahmad International Stadium in Kuwait.

With four wins from four and 16 goals scored against one conceded, Socceroos coach Graham Arnold's extended squad -- which features seven potential debutants among the 34 players selected -- is well-placed to ensure progression to the third and final stage of Asian qualification for the 2022 World Cup.

"We're starting from scratch," Arnold said.

"Yes, we're in a good position but we're not talking about the past; we're only talking about the present and what's now, and that is Kuwait.

"We have a four-game tournament in 12 days that we have to play. I expect to win every game and expect to be top of that group after those four games."

While much has been made of what the A-League and W-League can do to drive interest in Australian football, the Socceroos winning a place at Qatar 2022 carries significant ramifications for the domestic scenes: They and the Matildas are still the two most important entities when it comes to the broader Australian public's interest in football.

The Socceroos' strong performances at Germany 2006, having qualified for their first World Cup in 32 years, was a godsend to the burgeoning A-League; and the growth of the W-League in the public's consciousness would not have been possible without the Matildas' development into a significant player on the international scene.

"It's massive," Arnold said of the national team's importance.

"It gives a pathway and gives dreams to every young footballer in the country. It's what they aspire to be and where they aspire to go.

"The Socceroos and the Matildas are the elite level of where players dream of being. It's a massive thing. It's such a special thing to play for your country."

Ostensibly, the strong position the Socceroos enjoy as they head to Kuwait should mean that Arnold has scope to experiment with personnel and tactical approach in his side's remaining games to ensure they are well placed to ensure a fifth straight appearance at a World Cup.

But if Arnold is confident that he already has an approximation of his best XI, and belief in his existing approach with scant modification, the coming fixtures represent an opportunity to get as much football as possible into the team before the more challenging phase of qualification begins.

One debut that can be locked in, however, is Brescia defender Fran Karacic, with the Socceroos boss confirming he was set to start against Kuwait.

"I truly believe that simple messaging and simple game plan [are key]," Arnold said.

"What we did in the past is what we did in the past.

"To get players together for only a couple of days, I need to be looking at what they're doing at their club, what style they're playing at their club.

"As an individual, what positions they're playing and when I put that team on the field they're very comfortable to play in the team system overall."

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Safety concerns in Asia

Australian player's union Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) has expressed significant concern about the health and safety risks that Sydney FC, Melbourne City, and Brisbane Roar will face in their coming AFC Champions League fixtures.

As has been the case for coming Asian World Cup qualifiers, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to alter the scheduling of its premier club tournament with the group stages of both the Western and Eastern regions staged in hubs.

Sydney FC progressed automatically to the competition's group stages as 2019-20 A-League premiers, and they are set to face Korea's Jeonbuk Hyundai, Japan's Gamba Osaka, and Singapore's Tampines Rovers in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Following the withdrawal of Myanmar's Shan United from the competition, 2020-21 premiers Melbourne City advanced to a playoff against Japan's Cerezo Osaka. The Roar are set to face Singaporean side Kaya F.C.-Iloilo for the right to face Chinese side Shanghai Port in a qualifying playoff.

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Both City's and the Roar's playoffs and the group stage fixtures, should they progress, will be staged in Thailand.

According to the World Health Organization, Uzbekistan had 1673 cases between May 24 and 31, while Thailand had 24,807 diagnoses of the virus between those dates.

Speaking to ESPN, PFA co-chief executive Beau Busch said that his organisation was disappointed with the priorities of the AFC.

"The Asian Champions League is the pinnacle of club football for our domestic-based members, and participating in the competition is of critical importance to Australian football," Busch said.

"However, no player should be burdened with the health and safety risk that AFC is seeking to impose on them.

"AFC continues to refuse to meaningfully engage with the players across the region, highlighting how they continue to value their economic interests above the health and safety of the very players they are reliant on to run their competitions.

"With the public health crisis worsening throughout much of Asia, and significant concerns about the AFC's ability to safeguard the health and safety of players, our members are understandably very worried."

Western United: 'Take a good hard look'

The last vestiges of Western United's faint finals hopes were extinguished on Friday, when a lack of defensive effort added to clinical finishing by the Victory led to a 6-1 thumping at the hands of rivals mired in their worst season.

"It's a bad night for the football club," United coach Mark Rudan said after the defeat. "Three weeks ago we were in the mix [for finals], and the wheels have just fallen off."

In some ways, it's remarkable that the swoon at United didn't happen sooner.

It's by their hand, but any entity engaged in a constant nomadic trek without a proper ground to call home will eventually hit a wall -- and their recent 'tour' that saw them travel to Launceston, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, Perth, Ballarat, Wellington and then back to Melbourne seemingly pushed them over the edge.

Some level of regression to the mean was also likely, with United, according to FotMob, sitting outright last in the A-League in terms of xG across the 2020-21 season. At the end of their second season, the need for renewal and rejuvenation in the squad's playing roster is also becoming apparent.

"I think we all need to have a good hard look at ourselves," Rudan said. "There needs [to be] a massive reset, I believe, and we need to be better in many areas."

Looking at the squad, the likes of Sebastian Pasquali, Luke Duzel, Dylan Pierias, Nicolas Milanovic, Dalibor Markovic and Ryan Scott are potential building blocks for years to come, while figures such as Connor Pain, Tomoki Imai, and Lachlan Wales can make strong contributions. The biggest question marks, both from a playing and club identity standpoint, perhaps, therefore, revolve around Besart Berisha and Alessandro Diamanti.

Berisha, the A-League's greatest goalscorer, is out with a rib injury but he has contributed seven goals in 2020-21 while playing ~70% of his side's minutes. That seven, however, represents the 35-year-old's lowest sum in Australia -- four behind his previous low-water mark of 11 in 2013-14 -- and they were delivered in just five games.

Diamanti has still made 19 starts and played more than 80% of available minutes this season, despite being hobbled for much of the campaign. The 38-year-old's ability is still among the best in the A-League, but his deployment demands a composition and tactical approach around him to cover limitations inflicted by age and when his cross-field passes and flicks simply aren't landing.

Rudan must decide whether he can afford to go into another season with these two as foundational players to the team's success, or consider if now is the time to look to others as they take on a more complementary role.

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Do Wanderers really have a leadership problem?

Just over a month after Western Sydney Wanderers coach Carl Robinson declared that "something needs to change there, and it will change", after his side's set-piece defending had been key in a loss to Victory, the Red and Black sustained a mortal blow to their hopes when they lost 2-1 to finals rivals Wellington Phoenix last Wednesday.

The Nix's goals were the eighth and ninth that Western Sydney Wanderers have conceded from corners this season -- 22% of their 41 goals shipped.

The Wanderers retain a mathematical chance of making the six, but that result, in all likelihood, means their fate has been sealed.

With an expensive and highly credentialed playing roster, access to the league's best stadium as a home, and use of some of the competition's best facilities at their home of football, the absence of finals football is a major letdown for a club that fancies itself as one of the country's biggest.

Wanderers secured Robinson from a then-freefalling Newcastle Jets with the expectation that he could deliver a top-six finish, but their now four-year absence from finals football will undoubtedly bring him under the microscope heading into the off-season.

Should he remain, Robinson, it appears, has already identified one area of the squad that needs improving.

"I need to bring in some leaders," he said.

"We're a good team but we haven't got the leadership qualities."

It's a curious choice of words, given that one of the defining features of the Welshman's tenure has been the club's willingness to back him in building the squad that he wants; hence that blame for lack of leaders, ostensibly, will therefore lie with him.

Graham Dorrans, James Troisi, Ziggy Gordon, Bernie Ibini, Jordon Mutch, Scott McDonald, and Steven Ugarkovic were all signed during his tenure, while Mitch Duke was brought back in on loan from Al-Taawoun.

For those outside the inner sanctum, there's very little way to determine if Robinson's summation of his squad is accurate - especially given that leadership is an intangible quality.

There's also no telling if his players, especially those that he brought in, will appreciate their coach's choice of words, or if said words will give pause to any players that are considering joining a Red-and-Black outfit coached by Robinson in the future.