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The Socceroos’ World Cup hopes are fading. So what happens next?

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It hasn’t been a fun week to be an Australian football fan.

Days after the Matildas’ shock quarter-final exit from the Asian Cup, the Socceroos have edged closer to missing out on automatic qualification for this year’s men’s World Cup in Qatar.

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In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Graham Arnold’s side drew 2-2 against Oman.

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The Socceroos led twice throughout the match — first through a 15th-minute penalty scored by Jamie Maclaren, then thanks to a strike from midfielder Aaron Mooy in the 79th minute —  but the goals were cancelled out by Oman’s Abdullah Fawaz each time.

The draw is Australia’s third in the past four games, leaving the team third in group B. They’re now three points off second spot, with two games left.

With the top two nations of each group automatically qualifying for Qatar, there is now no room for error: the Socceroos need to win both of their final two matches to avoid a trickier intercontinental play-off route.

The problem? The two teams they must defeat, Japan and Saudi Arabia, currently sit above them on the table.

Here’s how the Socceroos’ path towards Qatar looks now:

Step 1: Japan

Australia’s first must-win game will take place in Sydney on March 24 against heavyweights Japan.

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The Samurai Blue defeated the Socceroos 2-1 in their most recent clash back in October thanks to an early goal from young midfielder Ao Tanaka and an own goal from Australian defender Aziz Behich.

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History makes for grim reading here as Australia’s last win over Japan came all the way back in 2009. The Socceroos have secured just one point in their past three meetings with the team, which came in the form of a 1-1 draw in 2016.

The in-form Japan currently sit second in group B after defeating leaders Saudi Arabia 2-0 on Wednesday morning thanks to goals from Liverpool forward Takumi Minamino and Genk’s Junya Ito.

A win over Japan will be as difficult as it is necessary, and while three points would bring Australia level with the Samurai Blue (both on 18 points), the final group game for both teams will make or break their automatic qualification hopes.

Step 2: Saudi Arabia

Australia’s next must-win game comes against ladder-leaders Saudi Arabia on March 29.

The team will take a little bit more confidence into this clash after securing a 0-0 draw against the Saudis in November that the Socceroos arguably should have won based on the chances they created.

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Saudi Arabia need just one win from their final two games to secure automatic qualification, which they will likely do in their penultimate match against fifth-placed China, which would take them to 22 points.

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Wednesday morning’s 2-0 loss to Japan is their first defeat so far in third-round qualifying, with their only other dropped points coming in that 0-0 draw against the Socceroos.

Australia’s record against Saudi Arabia is slightly more competitive than it is against Japan, having defeated them twice in their past four meetings, including in World Cup qualifying in 2017.

A win over Japan followed by a win over Saudi Arabia will take Australia to 21 points.

However, so tight is the situation for the Socceroos that even two wins might not be enough to avoid an intercontinental play-off: it could all come down to goal difference.

Step 3: Hope

If Australia defeat Japan on March 24, they will need to do so by scoring as many goals and conceding as few as possible.

Just three goal-difference points currently separate the two sides, with Japan sitting on +6 while Australia is on +9.

The problem here is that both Japan and Saudi Arabia are the two most resolute defences in the group, having conceded three and five goals respectively in the past eight games.

Japan have hit a vein of form, handing leaders Saudi Arabia their first defeat in third-round qualifying thanks to goals from Junya Ito (left) and Takumi Minamino.(Getty Images: Etsuo Hara)

Worryingly, the final two teams both Japan and Saudi Arabia will be facing have the two leakiest defences in the group, with China having conceded 16 and Vietnam 17 so far.

Ultimately, Australia will have to score as many as possible against Japan and then hope that Japan don’t steamroll Vietnam by a significant number of goals to ensure that their current super goal difference carries them into second spot.

If both sides finish on equal points and equal goal difference, the next category taken into consideration will be overall goals scored, where Australia currently leads Japan 15 to 9.

Worst-case scenario

Australia lose both games against Japan and Saudi Arabia.

Luckily, the Socceroos’ earlier group-stage results mean that even if they lose their final two matches, they cannot be overtaken on the ladder by fourth-placed Oman (thanks, funnily enough, to the single point Australia secured in their 2-2 draw against Oman on Wednesday that started this whole existential spiral).

Soccer player wearing yellow and green uniform lays on his back in the grass with his face in his hands
If the Socceroos don’t win both of their final games convincingly, they could be on a collision course with a South American side in the play-offs.(Getty Images: Adil Al Naimi)

If Australia lose against Japan and Saudi Arabia, they will be forced down the intercontinental play-off route.

The first stop down that road will come against the third-placed team from group A, which will likely be the United Arab Emirates (though Lebanon and Iraq could also mathematically end up there).

While their head-to-head record suggests Australia should defeat the UAE, having won three of their past four meetings, their most recent clash fell their opponents’ way: a 1-0 loss to the UAE in January of 2019.

If the Socceroos make it past the UAE, they’ll then have to face the South American nation who finish fifth in their overall qualification phase.

John Aloisi
The intercontinental play-offs have provided some of Australian football’s most iconic moments, including John Aloisi’s winning penalty against Uruguay in 2005.(Getty Images)

At the time of writing, that team could be one of Ecuador, Uruguay, Peru, Chile, or Colombia.

While some of the Socceroos’ most memorable moments have come in such circumstances — such as their 2005 intercontinental defeat of Uruguay — Australia’s track record against South American sides suggests this could be a far harder task than qualifying through Asia.

Their last win over a South American side came in 2010 against Paraguay, and they’ve lost five and drawn twice in the 12 years since then.

Convincing wins in their final two games against Japan and Saudi Arabia are therefore imperative if the Socceroos want to reach November’s World Cup as smoothly as possible.

But based on the past few rounds of qualifying, that’s looking further and further out of reach.

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