Across the past year, the Socceroos have tested themselves against some of the world's best. Ecuador, Argentina, Mexico and England have all been faced, with lessons ostensibly learned from the tests administered. Now, though, comes a new form of challenge: the start of the 2027 World Cup cycle. Next week's AFC World Cup qualifiers against Bangladesh and Palestine are Australia's the first competitive fixtures since losing to the eventual world champions in the round of 16 in Qatar last November.
Clearly, the level of opposition has taken a sharp turn in the lesser-heralded direction and the Socceroos will be expected to handily win both games, but there are still several storylines that will play out in the coming weeks. Firstly, Australia will now shift from the underdogs role they filled against their high-powered opposition across the past 12 months and instead assume what has often been an uncomfortable tag for Graham Arnold's side: favourites.
Heading into the World Cup, Arnold was able to galvanise his side with an us-against-the-world, backs-to-the-wall mentality, bringing the squad together as a "family" that used doubt as fuel to play hard-running, purposeful, counter-attacking football. And aside from one blip against France, it at least did its job, securing passage to the round of 16 and turning their subsequent friendlies with some of the world's best into genuine contests. Now, however, everyone expects the Socceroos to win. And rather than play on the counter-attack and react, the side will be tasked with taking on the lion's share of possession and breaking down packed defences.
It feels so long ago now, but the side struggled to do this, albeit, against the higher-ranked foes of the AFC's third phase of qualification as opposed to the second phase that will commence this window, which brought Arnold's tenure to the brink. It can't be forgotten that Football Australia leaked against Arnold when Japan consigned the Socceroos to the playoff route in March 2022. Unable to find a way past parked buses, the Socceroos were too frequently slow and predictable in their attacks, descending into U-shaped possession and cross-spam as players were forced to fit into Arnold's preferred approach. How the gaffer will approach his second go-around in Asian qualifying shapes as a significant test.
Adding a further wrinkle, the upcoming Asian Cup, combined with the weaker opposition, could induce Arnold to experiment with his squad in these competitive fixtures: to see what younger or fringier players can do in his setup before he makes judgements on who will form part of his squad for January's tournament.
Defeating the Maldives in a two-legged playoff to earn a place in this phase of AFC qualification, Bangladesh are still searching for their first appearance on football's biggest stage. At the same time, their attempts to qualify for a first Asian Cup since 1980 -- which was also their first and thus far only appearance in the continental competition -- will have to wait until 2027 at the earliest after they failed to reach January's iteration.
Led by Spanish coach Javier Cabrera, the Bengal Tigers' squad is entirely made up of players drawn from the Bangladesh Premier League with the exception of Danish-born captain Jamal Bhuyan, who plays in the Argentinian third tier with Sol de Mayo. The Socceroos previously met Bangladesh during the second phase of AFC qualification for the 2016 World Cup, where Ange Postecoglou's side eased to 4-0 and 5-0 wins across the two fixtures.
Due to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas and the bombardment of Gaza, Palestine will be forced to stage their game with Australia abroad with Kuwait likely to host their meeting with the Socceroos. Initial plans had been for the fixture to take place in Palestine, with Football Australia sending officials to the West Bank on a planning trip to the country before they headed to England for October fixtures, departing days before the current war began.
The Palestinian national team was able to cross the border into Jordan after security was provided by the Palestinian Authority on Oct. 30, per Al Jazeera, but only after Jordan's Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, who is also the president of the Jordanian FA, helped to coordinate the opening of the border. No Gaza-based players will be part of the 20-player squad available to Tunisian manager Makram Daboub, who has overseen an upswing in the Lions of Canaan's fortunes since being appointed in April 2021, including qualification for a third successive Asian Cup next January and a 2-1 win over Bahrain earlier this year.
As ever, the below list represents a combination of a best guess at what Arnold might be thinking heading into the window, with some further analysis and personal bias applied when the answer isn't clear. Only players that have definitively declared for the Socceroos are included -- hence the absence of potential future stars Cristian Volpato, Liam Chipperfield and Noa Skoko -- and injured players are not included in the rankings.
Arnold will announce his squad on Nov. 9.
SOCCEROOS DEPTH CHART
First choice: Graham Arnold
Next in line: Ufuk Talay, Tony Vidmar, Kevin Muscat
With Muscat reportedly set to take over as the new boss of his former club Millwall in the coming weeks (and you thought Jackson Irvine and St. Pauli was a match made in heaven) it's unlikely he'd consider a move into national team management any time soon if Arnold was to depart the role.
Short of a godfather offer from clubland coming in, the 60-year-old will almost certainly be going nowhere anytime soon anyway but, if he did, the most likely replacements are both in-house in the form of Talay, who is still working with the Socceroos squad until at least the end of the Asian Cup (unless he's tapped to replace the now-departed Steve Corica at Sydney FC), and former Arnold assistant and current Olyroos boss Tony Vidmar.
Earmarking Ryan as the first-choice keeper has been the easiest part of these articles since their inception. The Socceroo skipper, 31, is entrenched as the first-choice keeper at AZ Alkmaar and his eight clean sheets this season put him fifth in that statistic across Europe's top leagues: trailing only Jack Butland at Rangers, Fernando Muslera at Galatasaray, Yann Sommer at Internazionale, and Marc-André ter Stegen at Barcelona.
Gauci, meanwhile, has rapidly re-established himself as the next in line with the commencement of the A-League Men season: conceding just once across Adelaide United's opening three games and recording a massive 92.3% save percentage -- the 21-year-old almost single-handedly keeping his side in the game as they held out for a 1-1 draw with Melbourne Victory on Saturday.
Glover, 25, has been starting for Middlesbrough in the League Cup, and was recently between the sticks as they beat Exeter City 3-2, but with Seny Dieng cemented as Michael Carrick's first-choice, he hasn't yet seen the field in the Championship. It's at a tier below, but Bilokapic is starting week in and week out for Peterborough United, who are in the mix for promotion, and regular football could give him an edge.
Bos, 21, returned to the Socceroos setup during the last international window after an emergency-appendectomy-enforced absence, starting the 2-0 win over New Zealand, and has also returned to KVC Westerlo's starting lineup in the Belgian Pro League. He's been playing further up the pitch since moving to Europe, as well as on the defence's flank, but still shapes as the long-term answer at the latter for the national team.
The alternative, Behich, has experienced a difficult start to life at Melbourne City but was hardly the biggest culprit in their early season league form that saw head coach Rado Vidošić replaced with Aurelio Vidmar after just two weeks of the A-League Men season.
With nobody putting their hand up and demanding selection, and given his recent experimentation and selections, it's increasingly looking like Arnold sees Rowles as his emergency fallback option for the position, as well as the left-sided centre-back when they move into a back-five either from kickoff or in possession.
With Atkinson battling an ankle injury, Strain and Miller both had the opportunity to press their case at right-back during the last international window and when all was said and done, it was the former that emerged with the edge. Miller, however, is doing his part to keep the pressure on by starting week-in-and-week-out for Nick Montgomery at Hibernian -- even if he had to suffer the disappointment of being knocked out of the Scottish League Cup by Aberdeen over the weekend.
Until Atkinson returns, it's also likely that Arnold will view nominal centre-backs Deng and Degenek as his next options for the position; the pair, like Rowles on the other side, can play as a right-sided centre-back in a back five or tuck inside from the flank to allow the left-back to advance in an ostensible back four.
Souttar's concerning lack of playing time at Leicester City has continued since the last international break, but there are few indications that he's still not seen as the first-choice option by Arnold. Minutes, however, aren't a problem for Rowles, who is locked into a starting role with Hearts in Scotland (even if he, like Miller, found himself bundled out of the League Cup over the weekend as Hearts lost 3-1 to Rangers).
Speak to people around the Socceroos setup, and the prevailing sentiment surrounding Burgess since he debuted in green-and-gold is "We've got one there." The Scottish-born defender is a key cog in Ipswich Town's backline and, if their Championship form holds, will be a Premier League defender next season. Circati, 20, finally made his debut against New Zealand during the last international window and looked right at home. The Perth SC junior is a regular part of Parma's XI in Serie B and if the Crociati can keep up their form, he will also be playing in a big-five league next season in Serie A.
Degenek, 29, brings versatility, leadership, and a killer mentality to the squad but he's only played 22 minutes for Red Star Belgrade since the start of September and appears to be one of the "losers," for lack of a better word, from Burgess and Circati's emergence. Absent for the last few international windows, Deng has been playing for Albirex Niigata in the J1 League and adds more adaptability but with his domestic season ending soon he's going to struggle to break through without something changing.
First choice: Jackson Irvine, Keanu Baccus
Next in line: Massimo Luongo, Aiden O'Neill, Cameron Devlin, James Jeggo, Kenny Dougall
Olyroos Duty: Calem Nieuwenhof, Ryan Teague, Patrick Yazbek
Unavailable: Denis Genreau (Presumed)
Irvine tapped into his inner Wolverine and went from looking like he was set for a lengthy period on the sidelines following an injury against Mexico to starting against England in the following window. Captaining and playing regularly for St. Pauli in the 2. Bundesliga, there's little reason to believe the Melburnian isn't one of the first names on Arnold's teamsheet. Baccus, likewise, has firmly entrenched himself in both Arnold's and St Mirren boss Stephen Robinson's pecking order and short of any fitness concerns emerging it's difficult to see that shifting soon.
Finally back starting for the Socceroos in their win over New Zealand, Luongo's awareness, touch and composure on the ball, and vision had one wondering how he managed to go so long without playing for the national side and he should be well in contention for the Asian Cup. And if the Tractor Boys form continues, his remarkable path from being a journeyman signing a short-term deal with Ipswich after their first preference couldn't join, could wind up with him becoming a Premier League midfielder.
After commencing his second stint in Europe strongly at Standard Liège, O'Neill hasn't started a league game in Belgium since early September -- his lone start a full 90 minutes against fourth-tier side K.R.C. Harelbeke in the League Cup earlier this month -- and with the swelling stocks in the Socceroos' midfield, the bench isn't where one wants to be. If he was fit, Genreau would shape as a probable selection for this squad, probably competing with O'Neill for a spot, but the 24-year-old has been absent from Toulouse's squad in recent weeks with a knock.
Devlin is another one that isn't playing as often as he would be wanting with Hearts but, with several of his competition headed to Olyroos this month, he could see himself called back up so he can show what he can do before the Asian Cup. Jeggo and Dougall, likewise, could benefit from several other options being injured or with the 23s, the duo playing regularly with Hibernian and Blackpool, respectively.
Netting his second goal of the Eliteserien season against Tromsø late last month, Viking's Yazbek isn't a nailed-on starter in Norway but has been playing regularly and looms as a good chance for a maiden call-up if he can impress with the Olyroos this month. So too does Nieuwenhof and Teague.
Increasingly flourishing in his second season in Europe and, alongside Irvine, doing his bit to help push St. Pauli toward promotion to the Bundesliga, Metcalfe was one of the Socceroos' best during the last international window and is rapidly establishing himself not just as a squad regular but as a starter, especially with McGree not playing since early October with a foot injury.
Unlucky not named as a full member of the squad during the last window, instead tapped as a train-on, Manchester City product Robertson has continued to start on loan for Portsmouth in League One and would have to consider himself a bit hard done by if he didn't make the 23 this time around given the fitness clouds hanging over several other options.
Hrustić, meanwhile, still hasn't played a minute of football for Hellas Verona this season and, short of Arnold calling him up to provide some sort of advertisement for interested clubs during the January transfer window, it's difficult to see a path to a call-up until he does.
First choice: Craig Goodwin, Martin Boyle
Next in line: Samuel Silvera, Connor Metcalfe, Awer Mabil, Daniel Arzani, Garang Kuol, Nestory Irankunda
Olyroos: Adrian Segecic, Marco Tilio
Unavailable: Mathew Leckie, Riley McGree
Now sitting on five goals in seven league games with Saudi side Al Wehda, Goodwin almost certainly remains Arnold's starting option on the left. Across from him on the right, Boyle shapes as probably being similarly entrenched as he targets a first major tournament in green-and-gold -- even if the goals have dried up as of late in his regular games for Hibs.
League starts have been few and far between for Silvera as of late but he did find the net against Exeter City in the League Cup and off the bench against Norwich City in the Championship, which means he should retain his place. The versatile Metcalfe provides another strong option on the flanks, and long-standing Arnold option Mabil has finally started to see regular football with Swiss side Grasshoppers, boosting his chances of another call-up after featuring off the bench against England last month.
It's early in the season, but Arzani looks like a player re-born under Tony Popovic at Melbourne Victory and if he can maintain his strong start, highlighted by his improved fitness and counter-pressing, he shapes as a strong option moving forward. A week ago, Irankunda's start to the A-League Men season would have made it incredibly difficult not to call him up but his frustrating game against Victory, where he was kept mostly quiet even before his late red card, could lead Arnold to decide caution is the better option; maturing in the junior pathway of Young Socceroos and Olyroos.
Kuol is getting important regular football with FC Volendam in the Eredivisie but, like Irankunda, some impressive performances with the Olyroos might shape his best path back into the side -- albeit his absence from the squad that travelled to Saudi Arabia could augur well for a senior call-up. Fellow 19-year-old Segecic has been in strong form with FC Dordrecht in the Dutch second-tier, including a brace in a man-of-the-match performance against FC Den Bosch last month to keep him on the radar.
J1 League-bound after Machida Zelvia secured promotion, it's difficult to imagine that Duke has fallen down Arnold's pecking order coming into the start of World Cup qualifying. The one thing to watch, however, is that with the J2 League season set to end next week, the 32-year-old will be without regular football during the lead into the Asian Cup. Borrello's Western Sydney Wanderers have been very hot and cold to start the A-League Men season, but the 28-year-old should be part of the squad.
Former Wanderer Yengi, meanwhile, had his planned Socceroo debut ruined by an ankle injury and has had sporadic minutes for Pompey since he returned but, given he previously thought him good enough to come into camp, Arnold may opt to bring him Yengi in against Bangladesh and Palestine so he can get a proper look at him before the Asian Cup.
Melbourne City striker Maclaren got his first goal of the campaign against Sydney FC over the weekend, in what he, City boss Vidmar, and Arnold will no doubt hope spurs him on after a slow start. However, if the Socceroos' boss is looking for goals, it's difficult to look past the start of Fornaroli with Victory with six goals in three games scored by the Uruguay-born striker. The 36-year-old made two appearances for the Socceroos in ill-fated qualifiers against Japan and Saudi Arabia during the last cycle and obviously doesn't shape as an option for the future ... but he is looking fit and is in obvious lethal form.
Toure now has his Socceroos debut under his belt and he and Botic shape as exciting options for the future, even if their path to the Socceroos likely lies runs through strong Olyroos form and the Paris Olympics.