Doha: After the Socceroos defied the odds just to make it to Qatar, Graham Arnold is not planning on making up the numbers despite a huge late injury blow, banking on ‘Aussie DNA’ as his secret weapon against the world’s best teams.
Australia’s coach says he is still “tossing and turning” over his starting XI two days out from the showdown with reigning champions France, with the last-minute withdrawal of Martin Boyle leaving the Socceroos without one of their most potent attacking weapons for the tournament.
But describing Australia’s off-field preparations in Doha as “perfect” Arnold believes his youthful Socceroos squad forged on “mateship” has what it takes to become only the second Socceroos side to reach the Round of 16 — and possibly go even further.
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Australia are rated the outsiders of a tough group that features the reigning champions, world No.10 Denmark and Tunisia, and a 500-1 shot to win the tournament but Arnold, as always, is daring to dream.
“What I’m looking at is the last 16. We’ve got to give them a goal and expect to achieve that goal with performances that make the nation proud, and their families proud,” Arnold said, before returning later to clarify his intentions. “I want to go all the way. But success to start with is the last 16.”
Arnold has previously signalled this being an unpredictable World Cup full of upsets because of the fact it is being played mid-season in Middle Eastern conditions foreign to many non-Asian nations.
The Socceroos have the perfect chance to set that tone on Wednesday (AEDT) against France, who will be missing the world’s best player Karim Benzema but will still line up with a team featuring nearly a billion dollars worth of talent including Kylian Mbappe, Aurélien Tchouamen, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé.
Not that Arnold is letting his players get star struck.
“If we focus too much on the opposition it’ll just put it in the brains of the players of how good the opposition is,” he said.
“We know their strengths, the players know their strengths. It’s about those ten blue shirts against ten yellow.
“We’ve got the Aussie DNA, go out and kick and scratch and do whatever is required to do that. One of their strengths is technical so we’ve got to be in their faces.”
Arnold insists Australia will be going for the win, not just a point, against France but it won’t be a gung-ho approach: “We’ve got to be smart about it”.
On Benzema being ruled out of the tournament he said: “It’s really sad for Benzema … it would have been fantastic to play against him. That’s what these type of experiences in World Cup are for… to have an opportunity to shock the world.”
Benzema RULED OUT of World Cup | 00:22
Lingering injury concerns have cast a considerable cloud over Australia’s preparations. Midfielder Ajdin Hrustic (ankle) won’t start against France while Arnold faces some big calls on whether to risk key players like Harry Souttar and Kye Rowles who are only just back from serious injuries.
It’s hardly ideal but Arnold hopes the edge gained at Australia’s secluded Aspire Academy training base – and the unity that has been strengthened there – will count for plenty.
“Off the field, it’s been perfect. It’s a great facility and we’ve had zero distractions. Our pre-planning that we did for three months to make sure everything was going to be right has worked,” Arnold said.
“The players are in great spirits, it’s about three major words.
“It’s about belief, belief we can do the job. Energy, bring that energy for the nation, and the focus on our performance.
“… I believe in (team unity). You can say our players aren’t playing in the top leagues in the world, and all their players are. But it’s a team sport. It’s about connecting the 26 players in a family environment.
“They are mates, they’ve got each other’s backs and that’s when you can get special results.”