If he were forced to pick a player who became his team’s cornerstone in the run-up to Qatar 2022, there would be few better candidates than Ajdin Hrustić. Just weeks after helping Eintracht Frankfurt lift their first European trophy in 42 years, the 25-year-old booked the Socceroos place in next week’s World Cup qualifiers with Peru with a rocket at the 84th minute. which secured Australia a 2-1 victory over the United Arab Emirates.
It may have taken a good deflection for Ali Salmeen – certainly enough to deceive Khalid Eisa in the UAE goal – but given the stakes of Wednesday morning’s encounter, there will be little appetite in the Socceroos camp to qualify the celebrations. Such temperance would also be underestimated that few players available to Graham Arnold have the technique to hit the ball with such power and direction in the first place, and that frequently during this campaign Hrustić has been the shining light in what has otherwise been a predictable and uninspiring attack.
Coach Arnold had spoken of the “Australian DNA” when preparing for this match. In his interpretation, it was a call for a spirit of “back to the wall, run, get on the court, chase, fight, harass and do whatever it takes to win this game”. Yet bare in the first 45 minutes at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Qatar is what increasingly delimits this team: conservatism in possession, an inability to create quality chances outside of transition and an unwavering reluctance to be exposed to any kind of risk by changing things.
The UAE itself cannot be said to have been a dazzling example of verve and attacking football. Coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s side were also slow and heavy for long periods of possession; their best moments came when 19-year-old left-winger Harib Al-Maazmi had the opportunity to run alongside Nathaniel Atkinson and Bailey Wright. The teenage striker showcased the one bright spark on either side in the opening rallies: his inside cut and sharp angle shot that forced Mat Ryan into action in the 35th minute, the most notable shots on goal from the opening stanza.
Putting defenders on their heels by running towards them can do magic, as the Aussies found out minutes in the second half when Mat Leckie forced a turnover of possession and the ball fell on Martin Boyle. Driving into the penalty area with venomous intent, the Scottish-born winger laced a cross to the ground which was met by Jackson Irvine. Irvine did what he does best when he came into the box from midfield and fired home.
Less than three minutes later, however, Caio Canedo leveled things. Taking advantage of the Socceroos’ inability to clear, Al Abyad hit back and the bruiser Al-Maazmi kicked in a ball. With the Socceroos defense in the open sea, the naturalized Brazilian Canedo surged. After 180 seconds, the pressure was on Australia again.
The Socceroos had the better of a chance as the game wore on, but extra time and penalties loomed, when substitute Jamie Maclaren’s effort after a rare moment of fine interaction was saved in the 80th minute.
But comes the moment, comes the man. Befitting his new status as a Socceroos talisman – particularly in the absence of Tom Rogic, who withdrew from the squad for personal reasons in the run-up to the game – Hrustić appeared at the most important moment.
Did his team play particularly well? Not particularly, and the Peruvians watching will have seen nothing on Wednesday to scare them. But despite all the familiar issues that were exposed, the Socceroos didn’t deserve to lose. Now they are just one triumph away from Qatar 2022.