Tonight at 9pm, Australia and Egypt clash in what is the final match of Group C.
Fresh off the back of a somewhat disappointing loss to Spain on Sunday night, Australia will be looking to bounce back and claim their second win of the tournament and secure qualification to the quarterfinals.
For Egypt, who also lost their last match, a 1-0 defeat to Argentina, the outcome will prove critical to their chances of tournament survival.
Either a draw or a win will be enough to see Australia secure qualification to the next round, whereas for Egypt, it’s win or be eliminated.
Australia enters the clash having spent the majority of their previous match against Spain parked in their own half, repelling wave after wave of Spanish attacking expertly. Right up until the 80th minute, it looked as though the Australian defensive wall would not crack.
However, an inch-perfect Marco Asensio cross found Mikel Oyarzabal, who was able to glance his header home and give the Spanish their first win of the tournament.
The ultra-defensive approach to the Spain game was seen as a necessary precaution, especially given the level of talent in that Spanish side. However, Egypt do not pose the same threat as Spain, ultimately meaning we could see Australia revert to the tactics that proved successful in their opening match against Argentina.
The tactical set-up Australia deployed against Spain may not have been the prettiest viewing, but in the context of who they played and the style they were trying to counter, it was a necessary evil.
Against Egypt, a side who set-up defensively themselves, expect Graham Arnold to revert to the tactical set-up that proved successful against Argentina. The high-energy style of press deployed against the South Americans could prove vital in overcoming an Egyptian side that lacks quality and a notable game-changing star. Ramadan Sobhi has looked their most likely this tournament, recording the sides only two shots on target against Argentina, but even he is far from a game changer.
The Egyptians may lack the individual talent of Australia’s other opponents, but they make up for this through their defensive organisation and tenacity. Throughout the tournament Egypt have proved their ability to put in tough defensive shifts, recording 36 tackles, 37 interceptions and 42 clearances so far.
This solid defensive base will provide a different and difficult challenge for the Olyroos who will aim to exploit a weakness they’ve shown throughout the tournament, their ability to finish off moves.
Often against Argentina and Spain, particularly the former, Australia lacked the quality to play a killer final pass or the class to finish off big chances. On a different night this could have proven to be the Olyroos Achilles heel. Australia hit the woodwork twice and missed three big chances against Argentina. This quite simply will not cut it against an Egypt side that will limit the spaces for Australia’s creative players, such as Daniel Arzani, to operate in.
But aside from replacing his three suspended stars, Mitch Duke, Riley McGree and Nathaniel Atkinson, the biggest challenge for Arnie and his men will be trying to break down a side that will sit deep and invite the pressure.
The inclusion of Nick D’Agostino, Australia’s top-scorer in qualifying, provides Australia with an added aerial threat and with the consistency and quality of Joel King’s crossing this tournament, this connection could prove to be paramount for Australian success.
D’Agostino’s aerial prowess could be pivotal to Australia’s success, not just in a goal-scoring sense, but for their chances as a whole. Being able to launch long-balls forward to D’Agostino as a last resort and utilising his aerial presence to either hold the ball up and wait for support to come, or to flick the ball further forward for the likes of Arzani or Lachlan Wales to run on to, could be a key to unlocking a robust and stubborn Egyptian defence.
Come tonight, Australia needs to adopt a similar approach that Spain utilised against them. Hold the football, be patient and wait for the spaces and chances to arrive, because, as we learned on Sunday night, there is only so much pressure a defence can withstand before it eventually succumbs.
As for Egypt, their best bet for a victory and further qualification will be to play to their strengths. Defend deep, defend well and wait for opportunities to come on the break, and when they come, be clinical.
History beckons for the Olyroos. Progression through to the quarterfinals for the first time since Athens 2004 sits on the other side of a challenging 90 minutes against Egypt. A win or draw may not seem a difficult prospect, but if there is one thing these Olympics have proved, it’s that the extraordinary is not impossible.