Socceroos will need to improve if they are to defend Asian Cup crown

Dubai: Better late than never.

The Socceroos have finally arrived at the Asian Cup, but even coach Graham Arnold admits they will need to kick things up at least another gear or two if their dreams of going back-to-back are to be realised.

The sour memory of last weekend's 1-0 defeat to Jordan was successfully erased by Friday night's 3-0 thumping of Palestine, however, the win must be viewed in context.

On target: Australia celebrate Awer Mabil’s goal against Palestine.Credit:AP

Palestine are ranked 10 places higher than Jordan on FIFA's dubious world rankings. But numbers often lie. Palestine tried but they simply weren't good enough to replicate Jordan's bus-parking masterclass in Dubai. They've got spirit, but man for man, the "Lions of Canaan" are on the bottom rungs of this tournament.

Australia were vastly improved and started to prosper under the fluid front-three system that Arnold has planned and proselytised about. Their ball movement was quicker and their attacking runs more direct, thanks largely to the youthful energy of Chris Ikonomidis, Awer Mabil, Jamie Maclaren and Jackson Irvine, as well as the guile of Tom Rogic, who put aside a series of niggling injuries to produce one of his better games for the national team in recent years.

But they could have been far more clinical in front of goal, and against better teams such as Iran and South Korea, who they will inevitably run into if they go deep into the knockout phase, they will need to be.

All of Australia's best chances, and all three goals, came from headers. There's nothing wrong with that when you're winning, but it does feed into a stereotype across Asian football that the Socceroos are a team dependent on physical and aerial dominance. And it will be harder to rely on that against a stronger, more experienced opponent. The Socceroos have got to mix things up more often.

This is just the start for us, we're only just getting warmed up.

For now, the focus is on Syria on Tuesday night in Al Ain and what promises to be a different tactical challenge altogether. The Socceroos need a draw to move through to the round of 16 and set up a likely clash with Uzbekistan. Syria need to win and will be far more attacking in their outlook than Jordan and Palestine have been as a consequence.

"It'll obviously be a difficult game," Arnold said. "We know them well, we played off against them in World Cup qualifiers. I wasn't there, but my players do know them.

"We'll get back to the training field, we'll recover well and we'll go out in the Syria game with all guns blazing, expecting to win."

On the rise: Chris Ikonomidis has made a sensational start to his first Asian Cup with the Socceroos.Credit:AP

Australia will have to repel Syria, and particularly star striker Omar Al-Somah, without one of the team's most level-headed defenders. Trent Sainsbury is suspended after picking up what Arnold described as a "silly" second yellow card of the tournament for wasting time.

Captain Mark Milligan will most likely be shifted back to defence to cover for him, meaning a midfield pairing of Irvine and Massimo Luongo is probably on the cards.

There are also other selection quandaries. Andrew Nabbout is fit and ready to play after recovering from a groin injury, but it would be harsh for Arnold to drop any of his attacking weapons, particularly Maclaren, a confidence player who has just had a significant boost after scoring his first goal for the Socceroos.

Arnold has persisted with Maclaren during his dry spell, but Nabbout's return will test his loyalty. Apostolos Giannou, the only other out-and-out striker in the squad, also scored Australia's third goal off the bench.

"I love Jamie as a player," Arnold said. "His movement in the box is always very, very good. He's just needed a bit of belief, he's needed confidence.

"It's great to have competition for places. When you have competition for places it creates a very competitive environment and one that pushes players to another level."

Ikonomidis, meanwhile, must retain his place in the starting team for the remainder of the tournament. He provided two assists for the six goal-scoring chances generated against Palestine. But his rise may signal the decline of Robbie Kruse, a coach favourite who may have to be content with life as an impact player.

"This is just the start for us, we're only just getting warmed up," Ikonomidis said.

For Australia's sake, let's hope he's right.

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