Many went into Australia’s opening Olympic fixture unsure of how the Olyroos would fare against an Argentina side that was generally considered to be full of more talent and experience.
And after a 13-year wait between Olympic appearances, you could have been forgiven for writing the Olyroos off.
But on what was a remarkable night, Australia defeated Argentina 2-0 in their opening clash of the Tokyo Olympics.
It took one minute for any doubt about the Olyroos at this level to dissipate when Daniel Arzani, who looked electrifying off the dribble throughout the whole match, won the ball high in Argentina’s half, drove, and danced his way past Argentine defenders into their area before having his final ball cleared away. All signs early on indicated that this Australian side were not going to be overawed by the situation.
It was a cagey opening to the affair, as both sides struggled to wrestle control of the ball and the match. Challenges flew in and frantic clearances were made as both sides launched wave after wave of attack and counterattack in an attempt to break the deadlock, but both sides’ defences were stubborn in giving up chances and effective in sweeping up the opposing attacks.
However, after 14 minutes, the Argentine defence cracked. Joel King, offering width down Australia’s left flank, was played through by a long ball. King’s ball across the goal missed every player in its path – both Australian and Argentine – but somehow found its way to Lachlan Wales at the back-post who was able to bundle his shot home and give Australia a deserved lead.
It was Australia’s first goal at the Olympics since Ruben Zadkovich scored against Serbia back in 2008.
Australia was finally rewarded for their resolute defence, energetic press and proactivity with the ball, and any myths about the ability of these young lads was diminished as the ball crossed the line.
The goal seemed to put the wind further in Australia’s sail. They pressed as a unit, flew into challenges and nullified any Argentine attack that threatened to destroy their lead.
Conor Metcalfe was phenomenal in the midfield, so too were his partners in crime Denis Genreau and Riley McGree. All three brilliantly protected the ball with their quick feet and neat passing, but Metcalfe was superb at breaking down Argentina’s attack and screening a back four that probably didn’t need to be screened, such was the form they were in.
Harry Souttar, towering over every Argentine on the field, was dominant both in the air and on the floor, not allowing any Argentine to pass him as if his life depended on it.
And as the midfield battle continued to play out chances were few and far between. Carlos Valenzuela had a shot headed clear by Thomas Deng midway through the half before an extraordinary bicycle kick attempt from McGree – a man who is no stranger to the spectacular – was saved by Ledesma.
Argentina hit the bar with a cross-cum-shot from Ezequiel Barco, and for a good 20-minute stretch in the middle of the half, the game was predominantly played in the midfield.
The midfield battle was proving to be a real war of attrition. One side would have the upper hand for a few minutes, but a poor touch or a bad pass would hand the opposition possession and a chance to create, but these constant waves of possession were easily stifled by both sides.
The midfield deadlock was finally broken in the 43rd minute when Conor Metcalfe won the ball, beat two opposition players and drove into space before finding the perfect pass into the feet of King who played another brilliant ball across the face of goal only for Wales to fire it into the bar.
King and Arzani were proving a handful for the Argentine defence. King’s width and overlapping runs created plenty of space and options for Arzani to cut inside and drive at defenders.
And as the half draw to a close with a foul on Nathaniel Atkinson, the resulting free-kick would prove to be the decisive action of the half as Argentine left-back Francisco Ortega was sent-off for two yellows in two minutes, one for the initial foul and the second after a seemingly innocuous scuffle with McGree in the area.
And as both teams headed into the break, you could just sense that Australia, who had both the goal and player advantage, would show enough gall to close this match out. And close it out they would.
Barely 20 seconds into the second half and Mitchell Duke would hit the bar for the Olyroos, this time from a cut-back from Wales before a strong shot from Arzani was palmed wide by Ledesma.
If the first minute-and-a-half of the second half was anything to go by, it looked as though the floodgates were about to open for 10-men Argentina.
Australia’s stubbornness once again reared its head in the second half, forcing the Argentinian attackers into frustrated distance shots that barely tested Thomas Glover in goal.
Once again Australia looked to wrestle control of the match, and with their man advantage this task became a lot easier in the second half, especially considering Fausto Vera, the man who controlled Argentina’s tempo throughout the first half, was forced to drop into an unnatural centre back position, thus limiting his ability to dictate play.
Australia’s possession however did not result in a pile of chances. This was not down to a lack of will or determination, but rather a lack of cutting-edge final product, which was highlighted in the 70th minute when McGree, who was played in on goal beautifully, opted for a cut-back to Arzani rather than a shot.
McGree’s ball went slightly behind Arzani and by the time the winger was able to recover the ball, the cover defence had come, and the keeper was well positioned to save his eventual shot.
10 minutes after the failed Arzani chance and Graham Arnold’s substitutions did the trick. Duke found himself with plenty of space on the left edge on the box and his cut-back found an onrushing Marco Tilio, who, with his second touch of the match, did not hit the crossbar like many before him, but rather curled a wonderful strike into the back of the net with his left foot.
Tilio’s goal sealed a deserved, comfortable and surprising win for the Olyroos, and while there were many positives to be taken from this match, the Australians will want to be much more polished on Sunday night against Spain.