And then there were eight. The Socceroos shootout triumph over Uzbekistan on Tuesday morning (AEDT) has earned Graham Arnold’s side a thrilling Quarter Final shot at hosts United Arab Emirates in the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019™.
On another day, Australia’s attacking philosophy – which brought six goals in the group stage – would surely have paid dividends, with more than 60% of possession and 17 shots seeing them through in the regulation 90 minutes.
But a combination of good defending and a fine performance from Uzbek goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov led to a nerve-shredding shootout that made standout stars of Mat Ryan and a fit-again Mathew Leckie, who netted the vital winning spot-kick.
Now the Socceroos’ attention turns to the hosts, who reached the last eight courtesy of a 3-2 win over the Kyrgyz Republic on Tuesday morning (AEDT).
Having finished the group stage with confidence-boosting wins over Palestine (3-0) and a dogged Syria (3-2), Australia faced another free-scoring side in Uzbekistan in the Round of 16.
In the event, two of the highest scoring sides in the competition battled out an absorbing 0-0 draw, before two fine saves from Mat Ryan paved the way for a 4-2 win in the shootout, capped by Leckie’s decisive spot-kick.
There is sure to be a full house at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain, as the host nation face the Socceroos, but belief is running high for the Green and Gold.
The Socceroos reported a clean bill of health after the tense victory over Uzbekistan, but will go into the Quarter Final without playmaker Tom Rogic, who picked up his second yellow card of the tournament in the Round of 16 match.
Mat Leckie returned from a hamstring injury to make his first appearance at this year’s Asian Cup in the last round, and his presence added a spark to Australia’s forward play.
The winger, who plays his club football in Germany with Hertha Berlin, played for almost an hour against Uzbekistan, and was a calm presence as he fired home the crucial spot-kick to take the Socceroos through to the last eight. He is likely to figure in Graham Arnold’s plans as the manager looks to outsmart the UAE.
The dependable Mark Milligan has been outstanding so far, and led the way by scoring Australia’s first in the shootout.
Confidence will be high for forwards Robbie Kruse and Apostolos Giannou, who were also on target from 12 yards, while further good news for Arnold’s striking options comes with the revelation that Andrew Nabbout is recovering well from a groin problem.
Elsewhere, Josh Risdon – who went off at half-time with a groin injury in the tournament’s opening match against Jordan – is available again after being named among the substitutes against Uzbekistan in the last round.