After sealing qualification for the Asian Cup round of 16 with a game to spare, the Socceroos are determined to seal top spot in group B and enter the knock-out stages on a high.
Australia progressed with a 1-0 win over Syria on Thursday night (Friday AEDT), after Martin Boyle went on a brilliant weaving run to tee up Jackson Irvine to score the winner with a well-taken finish in the 59th minute.
The victory at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha takes serious pressure off Australia ahead of next Tuesday night’s clash (next Wednesday morning AEDT) with Uzbekistan.
But there’s still the top spot in the group to be played for and, potentially, a less demanding last-16 tie.
Next Tuesday, Arnold’s men will face Uzbekistan, who were convincing 3-0 victors over India later on Thursday, now knowing that a draw will be enough for them to win the group. Defeat, though, would consign the Socceroos to second place.
The Uzbekistan game could also offer Arnold an opportunity to rotate his squad where required – but he has no plans of holding back.
“Our expectations and what our demands are, we want to top this group,” Arnold said.
“Yes, we’ve qualified for the second phase already but we want to top the group. That’s been a goal of ours since we got into camp before the Asian Cup was to do that.
“There’s no such thing as taking your foot off the pedal.”
Australia have struggled to break down defences and Arnold conceded his charges “need to improve with the ball”.
“It’s been a trait of these types of teams for quite a long while and they’re hard to break down. And that’s the reality of it,” he said.
“But what’s important for us is that we give a mature performance, making sure we’re not throwing too many men forward and getting hit on the break.
“It’s important that we keep that clean sheet.”
Jordan Bos was selected ahead of Craig Goodwin on the left wing, Cameron Burgess partnered Harry Souttar in defence ahead of Kye Rowles, while Aiden O’Neill replaced Keanu Baccus in midfield.
Syria nearly took the lead after just five minutes when Pablo Sabbag rattled the near post.
Australia took the ascendancy from there but despite holding 71 per cent of possession for the half, registered just six shots to Syria’s three, and zero on target.
As the half wound down, Syria grew in confidence and almost scored when Ammar Ramadan dragged a shot just wide.
Arnold brought on Baccus, Sam Silvera and Riley McGree in the 57th minute and the substitutes gave Australia the urgency they needed.
Two minutes later, Boyle danced forward and shimmied past one defender, then his attempted through-ball deflected back into his path.
He flicked it to Irvine, who controlled the ball, turned beautifully and toe-poked home the winner, his second goal of the tournament.
“You gotta be in there to score,” Irvine said.
“We’ve got good quality in the final third, in the wide areas, and if you get yourself in there enough times, sometimes they drop for you.”
Mat Ryan, wearing a protective face mask, nearly spilled a long-range shot from Syria’s Moayad Ajan into his own net in the 67th minute, but grabbed the ball in the nick of time.
“I’ve made plenty of mistakes without a face mask,” he said.
“It’s just one of those things; the balls move around a little bit these days, but thankfully I did enough to keep it out.”