Australia travelled to face Palestine insisting that their focus would be on football, on securing two wins from two at the start of their long journey through World Cup qualifying ahead of a shift in focus to next January’s Asian Cup. And thanks to Harry Souttar’s first-half header in Kuwait, the lone goal in a 1-0 win, they delivered on that intention, even if their performance beyond the head of their defensive behemoth left something to be desired.
Indeed, especially in an attacking sense, this was probably the least convincing performance from the Socceroos since their 4-1 defeat against France in the opening game of last year’s World Cup; one doubtful to have met the increased standards that coach Graham Arnold has said the players have imposed upon themselves following the elevation of their game that has happened since.
Far from sitting back and defending against their more-esteemed opponents, Palestine’s pressing and hustle to win the ball back for much of the 90 seemed to unsettle the Australians, who weren’t clean in possession and largely struggled to fashion openings.
But in Asian qualifying, especially on these long trips to the Middle East, difficult enough even without the disrupted build-up of Tuesday’s game, the refrain is that points can never be taken for granted. Palestine was always going to present a stiffer test than the Bangladeshi side Australia dispatched 7-0 last week – something made apparent when the Socceroos were forced to spend more time defending across the opening five minutes than they were across the entirety of that clash in Melbourne.
Tamer Seyam looked to catch Mat Ryan napping in the fifth minute of play when he tried to curl a free kick inside the near post, and Mahmoud Abu Warda’s subsequent attempt to lob in from long-range went just over the bar.
But in fielding a player the size and quality of Souttar – who clarified to journalists last week that, yes, he is over 200cm tall, no matter what Google says – Australia has an asset that is a constant danger. When Craig Goodwin swung in a corner in the 18th minute, Mohammed Saleh didn’t do that bad a job of trying to defend Souttar, but the Leicester City defender was just too big and strong.
It took a legitimately top-draw save from Ryan in first-half stoppage time to maintain the advantage, denying Seyam from almost directly in front after a ball was swung in from the right was cushioned into his path by Ataa Jaber.
Forced to stage this nominal home game in Kuwait rather than the initially planned West Bank due to the Israel-Hames war, it was clearly an emotional performance from the Palestinians, especially the energetic start. Reminders of the broader context were obvious, with a crowd of expats in the stands, players wearing keffiyeh around their necks during the anthem and both teams lining up for a minute’s silence before the game as screens around the Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium bore the message “in solidarity with Palestine”.
Against this backdrop, it would take until the 64th minute for the Socceroos to fashion something one would regard as a quality chance from open play. Brandon Borrello, brought on as a substitute just two minutes prior, combined with Mitch Duke before sending in a shot that forced Rami Hamadeh into a scrambling save. From the resulting corner, Jordy Bos, also introduced moments prior, smashed a header off the crossbar.
While their backline was stout and they probably deserved the win in the end, the Australians could also count themselves somewhat fortunate that for all the endeavour of Palestine, they are a side that has consistently struggled to put the ball in the back of the net: now up to three games without a goal and with just one scored across six fixtures since June.