Graham Arnold once called Parramatta Stadium a “little shed”. In 2015, back before Pirtek Stadium was demolished, the then Sydney FC coach had a cute pre-Sydney derby crack at the Wanderers’ 21,000-capacity home ground. Six years later its successor, CommBank Stadium, hosted his Australian team’s long-awaited homecoming that was tipped to make or break their World Cup qualifying campaign but instead offered little insight into the road from here to Qatar 2022.
This venue, with its steep stands and capacity to hold 30,000, was made for moments of grandeur, and this perhaps should have been one of them. It was the Socceroos’ first home match in 763 days, since before the start of the pandemic. They rarely lose here – in home World Cup qualifiers it has happened only once in the past 40 years. Victory would have set them on course for automatic qualification ahead of next Wednesday morning’s tie with China.
What the Socceroos got was undefeated Saudi Arabia on a wet Thursday night. What could possibly go wrong? As it turned out, a nil-nil draw and a grave-looking knee injury to defender Harry Souttar that could well have longer-term ramifications. It was not all bad for the 23,314 in attendance. A loss would have had greater implications in terms of the group maths. As it stands Australia remain second in Group B, three points behind the Saudis and on equal goal difference. But the tourists asked Australia serious questions and the answers were not always forthcoming. When they were, momentum was disrupted by stoppages and gamesmanship, and Souttar’s late exit set off a 10-minute tightrope walk relying mostly on Mat Ryan’s impeccable balance.
The draw was a fair result on the balance of play, during which momentum shifted back and forth, but the visitors will leave the more content, with one foot already in Qatar. For the Socceroos, this was an opportunity missed to right the ship after last month’s loss to Japan, which snapped their world-record streak of 11 matches. Despite their sustained pressure, it was also one relatively scant on gilt-edged chances, with Mat Leckie probably coming the closest in the second half.
In the absence of Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic, and largely unable to play through the midfield, Australia made inroads down the left via Awer Mabil and Ajdin Hrustic. But the cheeky backheels and attractive attacking plays repeatedly promised more than they delivered, and the final ball too often dissipated as quickly as the Saudi defence snapped back into shape. They did not park the bus but they were impervious, guarding their box diligently as their manager, Hervé Renard, motioned from his dugout. The Frenchman, dressed like James Bond and just as cool in temperament, opted to sit undercover in the dry. His tracksuit-clad counterpart, Arnold, braved the wet, pacing his technical area as Martin Boyle played the ball across goal to Hrustic and the latter’s first-time attempt failed to trouble Mohammed Al-Yami.
This was effectively the essence of the contest. Some good things were there, others were not. Salem Al-Dawsari, though, was all the things. The vision. The pace. The passing. The Al-Hilal winger pursued a long ball all the way to the corner flag and then wooed it gently back in play, continuing the dreamy courtship along the byline. It was much to the chagrin of Rhyan Grant, who played the part of third wheel in unrequited love as the ball continued to evade him and sailed across the face of Ryan’s goal. Grant otherwise made himself more than a mild inconvenience at full-back and might also have scored in the first minute had his shot from distance not sailed over the bar.
The consistency of the rain ensured a surface more slippery even than Al-Dawsari. Had this venue been an actual shed the corrugated iron would have made for some serious noise. Instead it was provided by the 3,000 or so Saudi supporters congregated in the upper tier at the south end. The north end was somewhat more subdued, a throng behind some green-and-gold safe smoke and a “no place like home” tifo.
It took some skullduggery to rouse the home fans into voice, a chorus of “bullshit” after defender Abdulelah Al-Amri hit the deck and then went into the book for an altercation with Leckie. When Abdulelah Al-Malki went down moments later – again in combat with the Australian forward – it was enough to get even Renard off his seat.
Leckie, who opted out of travelling overseas for the four qualifiers in September and October due to quarantine restrictions, was lively on his return and very nearly broke the deadlock on the hour, turning his marker only to be denied by Al-Yami. The Saudi goalkeeper was soon on the money again in a double save to stop Mabil’s long-range free kick and Boyle’s follow-up, which ricocheted off a defender and behind for a corner.
But the Saudis soon had the ascendancy and, as Salman al Faraj drew a crucial block from Ryan, Souttar was felled in the action clutching at the back of his knee and promptly stretchered off, leaving both the player and coaching staff nervously awaiting scan results in the coming days.