Australia 3 (Awer Mabil 24′, Martin Boyle 26′, Mitch Duke 70′) China 0

The Socceroos have carried their perfect World Cup qualifying record into the AFC’s Third Round, setting up the 3-0 win over China with a two-goal burst mid-way through the first half.

The result gives Australia the inside running in the early stages of Group B after main rivals Japan suffered a shock home-loss to Oman on Thursday night.

Awer Mabil opened the scoring for the Socceroos with his fourth international goal on 24 minutes, found at the back post by Adam Taggart’s cross after Mabil’s initial run and shot caused a scramble in the box.

Two minutes later Martin Boyle added a second and killed the contest, driving confidently at China’s lacklustre defence and shooting past goalkeeper Yan Junling.

Mitch Duke netted his fifth goal for the national side off the bench on 69 minutes and it could well have been more as Australia racked up eight shots on target to nil across the 90 minutes.

China started the better side in the opening twenty minutes but as their high-press dissipated Australia’s midfield took control. Ajdin Hrustic and Jackson Irvine provided industry and stability respectively while Tom Rogic, playing his first international since November 2019, displayed the confidence he’s recently regained at club level.

When China did get forward early it was Wu Lei, their sole player plying his trade abroad, that looked most promising. But he was monstered by Harry Souttar whenever the goal beckoned and with Trent Sainsbury accounting for China’s other primary threat, Guangzhou Evergrande striker Elkeson, their morale soon fizzled. At the other end of the pitch their defending was brittle, to the consternation of animated manager Li Tie.

Australia’s previous run of qualifiers in June gave little away regarding Graham Arnold’s preferred eleven; four matches in quick succession called for rotation, and all hands on deck. More could be read from this match, Australia’s most important since the 2019 Asian Cup. Arnold opted for Sainsbury and Souttar over Milos Degenek in the centre of defence and the pair were imperious, while Sainsbury had a hand in two goals.

The only concern for Arnold heading into Tuesday’s clash with Vietnam in Hanoi will be the likely absence of Boyle, who was substituted in the second half with an apparent left hamstring injury.

The leading scorer through the early stages of the Scottish Premiership, Boyle is a delight to watch in full flight; entranced by the whiff of a goal and totally flippant about defenders, he is hunger personified. He was in this zone when cut down by Wang Shenchao just after the hour.

Arnold won’t be short of options to replace him. Duke and Riley McGree will be fresh after coming off the bench, while Daniel Arzani poses an intriguing wide option, having been massaged back into the international frame in recent months.

Hull City defender Callum Elder may also be considered for a starting position after making his debut off the bench in the dying stages, while Aaron Mooy, like Rogic, returned to the side after 22 months.

There remains real concern over the Socceroos ability to navigate this round of qualifying without access to home soil long-term, with fixtures against Oman and Saudi Arabia before the end of the year also likely to be forced abroad. For now, however, the side seem unfazed, and they’ll take a full head of steam into Hanoi.

For China it was a disappointing reality check for Li Tie, who like Arnold oversaw a side that breezed through the previous stage of qualifying. Li played every minute of China’s sole World Cup finals appearance in 2002 and if he’s to take them back there, it will likely be through the circuitous route of Fourth Round qualifiers.

Elsewhere in Group B Vietnam took a surprise lead against Saudi Arabia but were ultimately overhauled 3-1 in Riyadh, while Iran lead Group A after a 1-0 win over Syria.

Willem van Denderen