For Australia to progress to the World Cup round of 16, they now need a minor miracle.
Unfortunately for Socceroos fans, who have made plenty of friends in Russia after arriving in large numbers, Thursday’s draw with Denmark leaves Australia with a solitary point. To qualify for the knock-out round, the team must beat Peru on Tuesday and hope France defeat the Danes. Progression will then be determined on goal difference.
A victory over Peru is not far-fetched; the Aussies should have conquered Denmark and impressed against the French.
Nor is a Les Bleus win in Moscow unimaginable – while France has already secured a round of 16 spot, they have underwhelmed and desperately need to step out of first gear.
The problem for Australia is the last element of the equation: goals. While the exact permutation will depend on the score in Denmark’s match, to be comfortable the Socceroos will likely need to trouble the score-board at least twice.
Four of Australia’s last five goals in competitive football have come via the penalty spot. The other was delivered from a free-kick. All five have been scored by captain Mile Jedinak – a loyal servant and imposing defensive midfielder, but no creative dynamo.
“The only thing we have to do is put the ball in the goal,” coach Bert van Marwijk reflected after Australia managed 14 chances against Denmark and only the lone goal, a VAR-assisted penalty.
Andrew Nabbout, Australia’s raw starting striker, dislocated his shoulder during the encounter. While Nabbout is willing to play through the pain, van Marwijk has indicated the forward’s tournament is over.
Tomi Juric, brought on to replace Nabbout against both France and Denmark, continues to look anonymous in the golden yellow (or green as it was yesterday). Isolated up-front as a target man, and with no-one collecting from him, Juric’s contribution to the tournament so far has been limited.
Enter Daniel Arzani and Tim Cahill, the youngest and oldest members of the Australian squad respectively. Iranian-born Arzani has been an impact substitute in both matches, to exciting effect.
While his time was limited against France, on Thursday Arzani displayed the creativity that has some touting the 19-year-old as a £30m talent. With Arzani playing his club football at Melbourne City, part of the City Football Group, a move to Manchester could even be on the cards.
Australian fans are unanimous that Arzani should be given greater opportunities for the national team.
While van Marwijk has expressed his hesitation at starting such an inexperienced teenager in the World Cup, his dynamism could be exactly what Australia need as they search for goals against Peru in Sochi.
German-based Socceroos winger Robbie Kruse was ineffective in the Denmark clash. The introduction of Arzani out wide with the potential to cut inside – and alternate flanks with Mathew Leckie, one of Australia’s best performers of the tournament – is enticing.
Arzani is a refreshing arrival in the national team camp; “Jesus Christ, this is pretty cool,” his self-confessed reaction to being told to warm-up during the France match.
At the other end of the spectrum, both in terms of age and unanimity of fan opinion, is Cahill.
For such a beloved talisman of the Socceroos, his presence in Russia has proved strangely divisive.
For some, van Marwijk’s failure to bring on Cahill in either match is tantamount to treason and the only reason they don’t currently have four points. Others retort that Cahill is almost 40 and barely played for Millwall this season – he is not, they say, Australia’s savour.
The debate became so heated in the past day that even Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull weighed in.
“I know he’s definitely the people’s favourite, but that’s a matter for the selectors,” the politician said diplomatically. “He’s a great player but that’s a matter for the coach.”
To be fair to van Marwijk, Cahill’s inclusion may have been on the cards against Denmark – but Nabbout’s injury necessitated a rapid replacement, and a like-for-like substitution was an understandable reaction.
The arguments of Cahill critics have merit. But, the forward unexpectedly started against Chile at the Confederations Cup this time last year – when Australia was in an almost identical situation – and inspired a vastly-improved performance (albeit that match ended in a stalemate).
If his team is chasing a goal in the dying minutes on Tuesday, it would take courage from van Marwijk not to give Cahill one last throw of the dice.
It would also be fitting if Arzani and Cahill combined to potent effect. They are former Melbourne City team-mates and the veteran has become an active mentor for the wonder-kid, to the extent that Cahill joked about monitoring Arzani’s eating during the World Cup.
With retirement surely on the 38-year-old’s mind, passing the baton to the brightest attacking hope of Australia’s new generation with a joint cameo against Peru would be a moment to savour.
As Cahill knows all too well, having saved Australia time and again during his 106-cap career for the national team, miracles do happen.