‘Improvement still left in us’: Arnold’s U-23 ready to shift gears in AFC Championship knockouts
Graham Arnold says his Australia U-23 side approach the Quarter Finals of the 2020 AFC Championship in Thailand with plenty of room to improve.
The Green and Gold progressed to the knockout phase of the tournament after topping Group A, going unbeaten in their three group matches against Iraq, Thailand and Bahrain.
Despite their impressive start to the tournament Arnold says his side are only now scratching the surface of what they can achieve ahead of the knockout phase which begins this Saturday.
“We’ve got so much more improvement still left in us,” Arnold told reporters on Wednesday morning.
“It’s the first time the [Australia U-23] have got through to the knockout stages since 2013 which is a great achievement.
“Most important thing is the recovery in these conditions, the boys have good energy, they put a lot of energy into the games, they work extremely hard and I’m very, very proud of them for that.
“As I said they’ve got a lot more improvement in them, and in us, and that’s the most important thing now as we step up to another level.”
As important as rest and recovery is in the hot and humid Thai conditions, Arnold says his main focus is building the mental strength of his squad, to convince them all they have what it takes to go all the way in the competition.
“The biggest challenge for me so far with these boys is mentally,” Arnold said.
“Building belief within themselves and building confidence within the individual, and making them believe in themselves and what they can do at this tournament.
“It’s taking a lot of conversations with the players to prove to the players they’re good enough for this level.
“Those type of things that people don’t see, they just see the game side of it.
“The inspiration is there, you can see the inspiration, you can see the desire in the way that they’re running and fighting, and the conditions are extreme.”
Arnold and the U-23 approach the Quarter Finals where they will face Syria, with the hopes of progressing to the Semi Finals and beyond.
It’s all, of course, in the effort of securing passageway to Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, with the top three sides from the AFC Championship booking their places at the tournament in June.
In his mission to instil belief in his side mentally, Arnold has leaned heavily on the prospect of an Olympic Games berth to inspire his charges to success.
“I couldn’t be prouder of their work ethic and their desire; they know what’s at stake,” Arnold said.
“We keep on driving the message to them that the Olympics is a once in a lifetime chance.”
Unfortunately for Arnold the Green and Gold progress into the knockout phase without midfielder Joshua Laws who returned home today after injuring his hip flexor, while Melbourne City creator Denis Genreau is doubtful for the remainder of the tournament after succumbing to an ankle injury in training on Monday.
But Arnold is ready to lean on a strong starting XI he doesn’t see changing from here on out, led by the red-hot Wellington Phoenix attacker Reno Piscopo who is vindicating Arnold’s decision to keep a close eye on the U-23’s in the hope of providing them pathways into his Socceroos squad.
“The kid is doing fantastic,” Arnold said.
“No one really knew about the kid until we got him into Cambodia with the Olyroos when he was (playing) in Italy.
“He’s got a great future ahead of him, the good thing about the kid is he’s so level-headed, he knows it takes a lot of hard work and he’s doing exceptionally well.
“We need other players around him to step up as well.
“I think it’s why I took this job; to learn the players, learn what we’ve got, see what we’ve got and see who can come through to the Socceroos.
“These boys here, we will be putting out our strongest line up from now because it’s knockout.
“I have an idea in my brain of who that is, we will be ready for them in the quarters whoever that is.”
Australia U-23 Men’s National Team – Upcoming Fixtures
Australia U-23 v Syria – AFC U-23 Championship Thailand 2020 Quarter Final
Date: Saturday, 18 January 2020
Venue: Rajamangala Stadium, Bangkok, Thailand
Kick-off: 8.15pm (local); 12.15pm +1 (AEDT)
Stream/Broadcast (Australia Only): Fox Sports, Kayo Sports, My Football YouTube Channel