Australia captain Lucas Neill is expecting a tough challenge against Oman tonight in Sydney, despite the respective standings in Group D of Asian qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™.
The Socceroos head into the match with a perfect Brazil 2014 record to date, following opening wins against Thailand and Saudi Arabia. The Omanis, coached by former Cameroon boss Paul Le Guen, commenced with a home draw against the Saudis before crashing to a 3-0 defeat in Bangkok.
However, long-serving Australia skipper Neill knows from experience the difficulties that the Gulf nation can provide. Australia and Oman have met three times - all in the last four years - with the Socceroos narrowly having the edge thanks to two single-goal victories and a draw.
Only an injury-time equaliser saved the day for Australia at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, while a second-half winner edged a hard-fought battle two years ago on the only occasion the pair have previously competed on Australian soil.
On both occasions Australia were saved by goals from Tim Cahill, although the Socceroos will this time be without their talismanic midfielder who is ruled out through injury, as is inspirational goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.
With fellow veterans Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton also absent, Neill remains wary of an opponent desperate to kick-start their faltering campaign. “We know they’re very difficult, we know they can cause problems because of the pace that they have,” said Neill.
“With their speed they can break on the counter. We have to be playing to our potential, or as close to our potential as possible on the night.”
Australia defeated an experimental Malaysia 5-0 on Friday leaving the Socceroos undefeated in their last seven outings since suffering an injury-time defeat against Japan in January’s AFC Asian Cup final.
Strikers Josh Kennedy and Alex Brosque both scored a brace against the Malaysians with the former, currently leading scored in the J.League, enjoying a rich vein of form having now bagged seven goals in his last four international starts.
Oman have been preparing in Sydney since Thursday, with Le Guen travelling to Canberra to watch the Socceroos’ hit-out against Malaysia.
The Frenchman however is optimistic of an improved performance from his side following their heavy defeat in Bangkok. “In Thailand we had a poor game,” said Le Guen. “I know that the Australia team is better than us, I am not a dreamer. But I want us to be well organised, I want us to work hard, I want us to have a good fighting spirit. These are the basics of football and that is what I expect of my team.
“For the Thailand game it was after Ramadan and the players were a little bit tired, so it was a little bit difficult to work during this period. I feel that now the players are fitter and are in good shape.”
Al-Habsi to lead Oman
Le Guen has named goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi captain for the first time with the Wigan goalkeeper taking the role from midfielder Fouzi Bashir.
Al-Habsi says he also expects a rejuvenated Oman showing. “To be honest we can do something in this game, because when you are fit you can achieve something,” he said. “The experience of the Australia team is far better than our team, but myself and the team believe that we can play a fantastic game and it will be very tight.”
The other group match pits Thailand against Saudi Arabia in Bangkok in what is shaping as a potentially pivotal contest. Victory for the Thais would provide a five-point buffer over both Saudi Arabia and Oman should the latter suffer defeat in Sydney.
However, the Saudis, coached by former Barcelona boss Frank Rijkaard, have history on their side with the four-time FIFA World Cup finalists unbeaten against Thailand since 1984.