By Dominic Bossi
Updated June 7, 2022 — 8.28amfirst published June 6, 2022 — 6.49pm
Graham Arnold is set to start Aaron Mooy in the Socceroos’ most important match in more than four years despite the star midfielder having gone almost six months without playing any competitive football.
Just a week ago, the 31-year-old midfielder was flagged as little more than a substitute option for Australia’s World Cup Qualifying play-off against the UAE on Wednesday morning due to a lack of match fitness, having not played club or international football since January 4.
However, the former Huddersfield and Brighton man is now being strongly considered as a starting option for the do-or-die fixture, having impressed Australia’s coach and fitness staff since arriving into camp.
Before arriving in Doha, Mooy had only played 104 minutes of football this season and none since January 4. China’s COVID-19 lockdowns delayed the start of the Super League season and Mooy refused to return to Shanghai SIPG for preseason in fear of being denied travel for the Socceroos.
It meant his first taste of football came with the Socceroos’ friendly against Jordan last week where he exceeded the expectations of Australia’s strength and conditioning staff.
“That was the biggest positive probably out of the game. It just shows you just how much Aaron has been working back in Scotland, working hard on his fitness,” Arnold said. “He got through sixty minutes. But after I took him and after the game when I asked him how he felt, he said he could have kept going.”
When asked whether Mooy was capable of playing 90 minutes or more, Arnold said; “I think so. He’s in good shape and [fitness coach] Andrew Clarke worked him hard and worked him well and prepped very really well for this. We needed to get him on the field, 11 v11s, we’ve been able to do some training sessions of 11 v11s working on the defensive side of things.”
Aaron Mooy is in line to start for the Socceroos.Credit:getty
The availability of Mooy is a major boost to the Socceroos’ chances of reaching the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Should he start the match, he will fill the big void left by Tom Rogic’s absence with the former Celtic star withdrawing national team camp for personal reasons last week.
Rogic would have entered in rich form, having recently been crowned Australian Player of the Year for his role in Celtic’s league title but Arnold was confident the Socceroos have the attacking midfield stock to replace Rogic.
“We have got some strength in that position with Adjin Hrustic, Riley McGree and Denis Genreau can play there,” Arnold said. “Tommy with his quality isn’t here but at the end of the day, it gives another player the opportunity.”
While Arnold has hatched a detailed tactical game plan, he says the key to progressing to the final qualifier rests on the team’s fighting spirit. He doesn’t care how Australia wins, he wants the players to show a win-at-all costs mentality, even if it’s ugly.
“I want to see and will see the Aussie DNA and that Aussie DNA is backs to the wall, rally up, get on the pitch, chase, fight, harass and do everything that’s required to win this game,” he said.
Players to watch
- Ajdin Hrustic (AUS) In the absence of Tom Rogic, the Socceroos will look to Hrustic for their creative spark. The Eintracht midfielder has arguably been Australia’s player of the campaign and it is seemingly fitting that he enters the play-off as their midfield talisman.
- Ali Mabkhout (UAE) The UAE are expected to sit deep, hold a strong defensive block but strike on the counter. At the focal point is their prolific striker, Mabkhout. The 31-year-old is quick, calm and composed. He’s netted 80 goals for his country already, 14 of which have been in this qualifying campaign and the Socceroos will do well not to let him increase that tally.
- Aaron Mooy (AUS) The Socceroo midfielder appears to be the frontrunner to start as the holding midfielder for Australia despite being short of game time. He’s played just 166 minutes of football in 2022 and none for his club in over six months. However, he’s proven his fitness during the training camp and will be entrusted with one of the most important roles on the field.
- Omar Abdulrahman (UAE) The enormous wages on offer in the UAE Pro League have prevented Abdulrahman from becoming one of Asia’s greats. Linked with moves with Manchester City, Arsenal, Nice and Benfica throughout his career, a brief stint in Saudi Arabia was the only move abroad Abdulrahman has made. A lack of ambition? Perhaps. A lack of talent? No chance. The sublimely talented midfielder remains a huge threat to the Socceroos’ hopes of reaching Qatar. Creative, skilful and clinical, Abdulrahman will be the man to stop for Australia.
- Marco Tilio (Aus) If the game goes to the script and Australia faces a UAE side happy to park the base, they’ll need a game-breaker off the bench. In such case, all eyes will be on the fleet-footed, pint-sized forward from Belfield. Tilio is the perfect impact player - quick, skilful, daring and direct. Difficult to mark, harder to predict. Australia’s youngest man may be their most dangerous.