Last chance for Olyroos as Olympic dreams come down to the wire

Full story first published for SBS’ The World Game:

With Olympic dreams coming down to the wire, National Technical Director Trevor Morgan and Young Socceroos boss Gary van Egmond are eager to see the Olyroos match up against Romania and Mexico in the coming days.

While the eyes of Australian football may be glued to the progress of Graham Arnold’s Socceroos and their quest to advance to the next stage of FIFA World Cup qualifying, 24 of Australia’s best and brightest young talents have assembled in the Spanish resort city of Marbella under the banner of his other side, the Olyroos.

Previous efforts to assemble a squad for Olympic identification and preparatory purposes were frustrated by COVID-19 and the camp now represents the last chance before Arnold, with assistance from Morgan and van Egmond, selects an 18-player squad for Tokyo.

Commencing a four-game run of fixtures against the Irish U-21 side last Wednesday, the Olyroos had been slated to face Saudi Arabia’s U-23 side – who have also qualified to compete in Tokyo – on Saturday, only for that fixture to be cancelled “due to a COVID-19 concern unrelated to the Australian team and delegation”.

“Unfortunately, that’s just the world we live in at the moment,” van Egmond told The World Game.

“It was unfortunate because we want the games, and they’re good level games, and it all goes towards the prep but unfortunately, it just wasn’t meant to be.

“We were able to go to the training field and were able to play an 11 v 11, which was good. We’re able to control the environment a bit as well, so we were able to work on a couple of things. So, it wasn’t a waste of a day.”

Remaining fixtures against Romanian and Mexican U-23 sides – who have also qualified for the Olympics – remain on track to be played.

While results rightly take a back seat to performances and talent evaluation in these pre-tournament camps, the Australians had nonetheless been hoping to record an opening win on their Spanish adventure against the Saudis after going down 2-1 to the Irish in their opening game.

Towering Crystal Palace defender Jay Rich-Baghuelou, who otherwise impressed, inadvertently turned a cross from Borussia Monchengladbach’s Conor Noss into his own net to give the Irish the lead in that contest, before a stunner from on-loan Newcastle Jets attacker Ramy Najjarine served to tie things up with just over 15 minutes to go.

The Irish, however, had the final word when they broke quickly in transition in the 90th minute and whipped a ball into the area that Bohemian FC’s Ross Tierney, making his Ireland U-21 debut, headed home.

“From my perspective, I guess our main objective is to get them organised enough to be able to show who they are,” Morgan told The World Game.

“Bearing in mind that Ireland is probably on par, a similar age with our overall squad and they’ve played a little bit more than us.

“The result was neither here nor there. But there were a lot of positive things. As we progressed through the game the players started to have a better understanding of each other after playing more and more.

“So I think we were happy with it as an opening match. It was a good level, a good test for the boys and an opportunity for them to just clarify a few things that we’ve worked on in camp. At club level, they’ve all got very different requirements for their role.”

“I thought that from the perspective of how we looked, to see how we could build up from the defensive third to the mid-third, I thought we actually did quite well,” van Egmond added.

“I think where we didn’t quite do as well as what we would have liked to have done with possession in that mid-third was turn that into goalscoring opportunities.

“We addressed some of the issues from the perspective of what we needed to do better and it was good to review the game and to see the moments in which we could have made a different decision.

“It’s a learning process at this moment. These boys have never played with each other, they’ve never played within the way we want to play from a philosophy perspective and a principle perspective.

“There’s a learning curve for them and, for the first outing for so many of these players, it was encouraging.”

Only 18 players are able to secure a seat on the plane to Tokyo – 16 outfielders and two goalkeepers – and competition for the chance to call oneself an Australian Olympian is intense.

Olyroo-eligible A-League players – over a third of the competition’s players were under 21 this season – whose sides are playing finals football are not present in Spain but will come under heavy consideration by Arnold, as will eligible players with him at World Cup qualifying such as Harry Souttar, Riley McGree and Denis Genreau.

Captain Thomas Deng, should he prove fit, is another likely inclusion.

Though Arnold has been insistent that he won’t pick an overage player for a position he thinks an U-23 player can perform well in, there is scope to bring up to three overage players to Japan, with group stage opponents Egypt likely to bring Liverpool star Mohamed Salah to the Games.

“I think after this tournament we’ll all meet and discuss the possibilities of the squad,” van Egmond said. “And the other part of the occasion is the possibility of overage players.

“It’s just looking to see how that squad could have the best balance going into the tournament that will ensure they can be the most successful they can be at these Games.

“It’s a real cross-section of players [in Spain] and it’s been great to see so many new players and some players we haven’t seen for a while who have been with the national team setup.

“From our perspective, looking at it from an ID perspective as well, we know that it’s the Olympic campaign and we’re looking at it for a selection of that tournament, but there’s also the benefit of a number of these players, if they’re not successful in getting into the Olympic team, then next time they come into a camp they’re going to feel so much more comfortable knowing what the environment is like.

“They’ll settle in a lot quicker ahead of a tournament they’re possibly engaged in. There are huge benefits in that and, from the perspective of staff, in getting together and getting to know each other.”

Seeking to bolster their claims, the Olyroos will next be in action on Thursday (AEST) against Romania.

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