If Graham Arnold was reaching for the panadol to deal with selection headaches back in September, he might need something a little bit stronger at this point. With Australia’s opening game of the World Cup against France just over two weeks away, deliberation time has run out for the Socceroos boss. There is no more football left to be played and no more opportunities to make cases for selection; 1,153 days after the Socceroos began their journey to Qatar, Arnold will on Tuesday name the 26 players he will take to the biggest sporting event on the planet.
But unfortunately for Arnold, while the majority of his squad appears largely settled – the names of “15 or 16 players” were effectively decided on two months ago and several others have bolstered their cases since – the picture surrounding the final slots became no clearer across the weekend, particularly for those plying their trade in the Australian top flight.
“If you think too much about it it can affect your mentality and focus going into games,” said Melbourne City attacker Mat Leckie. “At the end of the day, the only thing we can do is perform for our clubs and get ourselves in tip-top shape. And then it’s up to Arnie.”
Admittedly, for players such as Leckie, the stakes associated with the opening weeks of the ALM season have been low. One of Arnold’s defining features as a coach is his loyalty to his players and he will be loth to drop any that brought him to this point. This will only be heightened by the injuries, lack of club minutes, or some combination of the two that have befallen so many in the months leading into the tournament. The sudden uncertainty surrounding those that would have been considered cornerstones may make the pragmatic Arnold think twice about pulling too many shocks at the selection table.
Coming from a position in which he has likely been protecting a position rather than trying to earn one, Leckie’s spot in Qatar was likely secure even without taking into account his important contributions to City’s undefeated start to the domestic season. The same goes for his teammate Jamie Maclaren, whose brace against Perth Glory on Saturday brings him up to seven goals in five games to start the season.
Adelaide United winger Craig Goodwin, who has returned to fitness after battling injuries to lead the league in chance creation, is in a similar position, while penalty-shootout hero Andrew Redmayne has avoided falling into a crevice while keeping goal for Sydney FC and will almost certainly also be on the final list.
But it all cannot be that easy. Across the last round of ALM before Arnold lays down his squad, City attacker Marco Tilio, Central Coast Mariners duo Garang Kuol and Jason Cummings, and Macarthur dynamo Daniel Arzani took to the field with what was likely just a single spot on the plane up for grabs – and that is excluding Roma’s Australia-born, Italy junior international Cristian Volpato from the equation.
Melbourne Victory romped to a 4-0 win over the Newcastle Jets with Chris Ikonomidis, Nick D’Agostino, and Jake Brimmer all contributing, but the run of three straight games without a goal prior to Friday evening’s dominant display has cast a shadow.
Based on form, the player with the strongest resume from the 2022-23 season is Cummings. The Scotland-born attacker has played a key role in three of his side’s four games to start the season and had a signature one-goal and three-assist performance against Western United in round four. Cummings, however, is attempting to break into a largely settled centre-forward group and was largely overshadowed by Kuol in the Mariners’ 3-0 win over Western Sydney on Saturday after the 18-year-old yet again turned the game on its head when introduced as a substitute.
Kuol’s latest eye-catching display off the bench came after Tilio netted his second goal of the season in City’s win over Glory earlier in the day; the winger finished strongly after a switch to the left in the second half. The question for Tilio is if his combined 18 minutes across the season’s two rounds will cost him at the selection table.
With just one match-winning performance under his belt so far this season, Arzani started farthest back of the quartet of hopefuls when he made the trip to Wellington. An assist and another strong individual performance followed – the 23-year-old leads the league in dribbles attempted and is second in successful dribbles – but his side’s 4-1 loss and his marker Callan Elliot scoring up the opposite end may have ended his hopes.
Possible Socceroos squad: Mat Ryan, Mitch Langerak, Andrew Redmayne, Aziz Behich, Joel King, Harry Souttar, Kye Rowles, Trent Sainsbury, Milos Degenek, Bailey Wright, Nathaniel Atkinson, Fran Karacic, Aaron Mooy, Jackson Irvine, Ajdin Hrustic, Cam Devlin, Riley McGree, Craig Goodwin, Denis Genreau, Awer Mabil, Martin Boyle, Mat Leckie, Garang Kuol, Mitch Duke, Jamie Maclaren, Adam Taggart.