Tuesday night proved again the challenges of playing across Asia against a lower-ranked opponent.
A highly motivated, energetic home side, a far away land, a different surface, a parochial crowd with few expectations on the home side – it all conspired to make this another scrap for points on the Road to Russia for the Socceroos.
But, scrap they did. And the Socceroos came away with the all-important points to make it three wins from three in FIFA World Cup Russia 2018™ Qualifiers after they wore down Tajikistan and ended their resistance with three second half goals.
Unlike Australia’s first two group games against Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh, there was no early goal to help settle the nerves and set the platform for a dominant performance. Instead, it took 57 minutes before Mark Milligan toed home a scrappy opener.
After that, a somewhat deflated home side began to lose their lustre as the Aussies turned the screws to double their lead before Tim Cahill added his second and Australia’s third on the final whistle.
Up until the opener, it had been difficult for the Socceroos to break down a well-structured Tajik side (their national Independence Day on September 9 adding to the emotion on the night) who defended in a tight block while looking to hit on the counter.
And each time the Tajiks pressed forward, the crowd ramped up the whistles and vuvuzelas, before piping down when the Australians were in possession. It was an odd occasion in that respect.
The first half saw the Australians push forward on countless occasions from the left side via the indefatigable Jason Davidson, while the right side was rarely an outlet. It made for a lop-sided attacking thrust.
And with Tim Cahill as the natural target up front, frustratingly, the crosses more often than not the service didn’t quite find its mark.
Overall though a few nervy moments aside, Australia looked comfortable, confident in possession while Aaron Mooy again caught the eye (his second half effort from a set piece deserved a goal). And Bani Yas’s Mark Milligan passing game and workrate was again high class.
The Socceroos’ attacking substitutions in the second half proved inspired with first Tom Rogic and Japan-based Nathan Burns then Tommy Oar adding a fresh impetus. And it was the Tokyo FC winger who combined beautifully with McGowan on one of his rare attacking forays to put it on a platter for a Timmy tap-in and make it 2-0.
And Cahill proved again his incredible scoring prowess on the international stage.
Not an easy night but another fabulous learning experience for many of the younger players, three points in the bank and a clean sheet.
Next stop Amman in October for the toughest test yet in the group when the Socceroos fly off to meet Jordan.