Footballers feel at home ahead of World Cup qualifying


SYDNEY (AP) – After 763 days, Australia can finally play at home when they host group leaders Saudi Arabia in the Asian World Cup qualifiers on Thursday.

Croatia-born and Italy-based defender Fran Karacic has played for the Socceroos five times since his debut in June, but only made his first visit to Australia this week.

It’s also a rare trip for the Saudi team, having played almost entirely at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Saudis are on an eight-game winning streak, including four wins in this qualifying round against Japan, China, Vietnam and Oman, but have never beaten the Socceroos in Australia.

This is not surprising, given that the Australians have a formidable record in World Cup qualifying matches at home. All the more reason for Australian head coach Graham Arnold to be confident ahead of the Group B match at Western Sydney Stadium.

“We know the Saudis are on a good run and they have played a lot of home games in this race,” said Arnold. “I would expect our mentality to be to face them and make sure that we are in the spotlight from the start and not give them time to play.”

Australia’s last home game was a 5-0 victory over Nepal in October 2019, when Jamie Maclaren scored three goals and Harry Souttar scored twice on his debut.

The Socceroos have been forced to play all of their games abroad since then due to Australia’s border closures and COVID-19 restrictions. Now they will have a home crowd to support them, with Sydney out of lockdown and fans allowed at the stadium.

“It’s great to be able to play in our country against Saudi Arabia and I expect a performance,” said Arnold, but “it’s all three points tomorrow night.”

Australia can move closer to the Saudis at the top of the group with a victory in Sydney before returning to the Middle East to face China five days later. The Saudis could take a six-point lead by winning the first of their two straight away games in Australia and Vietnam.

In other Group B games, a rejuvenated Japanese team have just secured a narrow home victory over Australia ahead of their trip to Hanoi to face Vietnam, and China are playing a home game against Oman in Sharjah. Japan and Oman each have six points and are still in contention for the group’s two automatic qualifying spots for Qatar 2022.

Iran lead Group A with three wins and one draw before they travel to Lebanon, and are two points ahead of second place South Korea.

For Lebanon, the game at the Saida Municipal Stadium will be their first at home since a 2-1 victory over Turkmenistan in 2019. They are on a 14-game unbeaten streak in matches played in Lebanon.

The Koreans are at home against the United Arab Emirates on Thursday and Iraq and Syria meet in Doha, each aiming for their first round victory. Iraq has three draws and one loss, and Syria has three losses and one draw.


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