As surprising as it may seem, we are less than 15 months away from the 2022 World Cup kicking off in the Middle East.
Just 12 teams remain in Asia and after the current phase of qualification, four teams will secure direct passage to the biggest sporting event on the planet.
One of those sides is the Socceroos who will re-commence their quest for Qatar this week under the stewardship of Graham Arnold and look to maintain their perfect record through qualifying thus far.
Phase Three begins in Doha this Friday morning with Australia taking on China.
It’s a simple equation for the Australians, finish in the top two of their group of six, and they are heading to a fifth consecutive and sixth World Cup.
We’ve scoured the markets to find our best bets so read on and find out who we are backing.
How They Got Through
Australia comfortably progressed through their Covid interrupted group in the second stage of qualifying, winning all eight matches and keeping six clean sheets in the process.
Remarkably the two times they did concede came against the weakest side in the group, Chinese Taipei, keeping Nepal, Kuwait and Jordan scoreless over 180 minutes.
China’s path to the third stage of Asian Qualifying was slightly bumpier, advancing as one of the best second placed teams after finishing runners up in Group A behind Syria.
A pair of shock results in 2019, drawing away to the Philippines and losing in Dubai against Syria cost them top spot.
Although winning all four games in the midyear hub by multiple goal margins allowed them to advance with 13 of a possible 18 points from the six matches that were counted.
This will be the first competitive meeting between Australia and China since the 2015 Asian Cup when the Socceroos won the Quarter Final 2-0 thanks to Tim Cahill’s heroics.
It will also be the second time they have been drawn together in World Cup Qualifying having been placed in the same group in 2010 World Cup Qualifying.
They played out a 0-0 draw in Kunming in March 2008 where Mark Schwarzer was called upon to save a penalty before China won its only match in that group, claiming what was essentially a dead rubber 1-0 in Sydney a few months later.
Dealing With The Heat
Despite Australia being the nominal home team in this fixture, this will get played at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha.
With the limited window to get this match played, the Australian border restrictions made playing the fixture anywhere in the host nation completely impractical so it is getting moved to one of the venues for the 2022 World Cup.
Given the bulk of the Socceroos squad based in Europe, it may help them out taking the shorter flight however the weather will likely be a bigger obstacle for both teams than anything else.
Mercifully the game will kick off at 9:00pm local time so the temperature will drop to a slightly more bearable 34 degrees, down from the expected maximum of 39.
The heat will require a smart, measured approach from the Australians as they try to begin their campaign with three points.
Our market is favouring a low scoring affair as the sides play to the conditions however I can’t bring myself to turn down the value on offer taking three or more goals to be scored.
Back Over 2.5 Goals @ $2.15
If you are more of a casual observer of the Socceroos, you might be hard pressed to find out who was the team’s leading goalscorer in the second phase of qualifying.
Guesses of strikers Adam Taggart and Jamie Maclaren would make sense, however it was man mountain centre back Harry Souttar leading the way with six goals from his five appearances.
Somewhat fittingly plying his trade at Stoke, Souttar was a menace for sides at set pieces and at almost two metres tall, always seems to find a way to get a header on target at set pieces.
Given both of Australia’s games in this window (Vietnam next week) will be played in rather oppressive heat, it would not be a surprise to see Arnold use his full squad but one name that jumps out as an option here is the completely natural and not at all Scottish winger Martin Boyle.
After injuries derailed his involvement in the 2019 Asian Cup, Boyle returned to the fold and contributed a goal and an assist over three appearances in June’s hub.
I’ll back those two players to score for the Socceroos in this fixture.
Back Martin Boyle Anytime Goalscorer
Back Harry Souttar Anytime Goalscorer
Both of these sides will be looking to start this phase of group play on a high note (because who would look to start on a low one?) so we should get a good indicator of where they are placed.
Handicapping the group, Australia should be able to account for China and will likely be in a race for that second spot behind Japan with Saudi Arabia.
For China they will be looking to to prove that they should be considered a contender for that spot as well, but I just can’t see the Australians dropping this game.
In spite of all of the criticism Graham Arnold has come under thanks in large part to his first stint as national team manager, he is a much more experienced coach now and will put out a side that can get the job done.
I’ll back a Socceroos win by at least two goals.
Back Australia to Win -1 Goal @ $2.90