After a shock win against Argentina to open their Olympics campaign, the Olyroos came within touching distance of claiming a hard-fought draw against European heavyweights Spain.
But after 80 minutes of defending desperately with their ‘backs to the wall’, as former Socceroo Rob Cornthwaite wrote on Twitter, Australia’s resolute defence was finally breached, as the Spanish side came away with a 1-0 win.
Mikel Oyarzabal – Spanish captain in the absence of injured Real Madrid midfielder Dani Ceballos – had rattled the crossbar in the first half, but he made no mistake with a clinical header that broke Australian hearts with just 10 minutes remaining.
The European powerhouses had failed to score in their opening match against Egypt, and despite dominating possession and territory for the entirety of the clash, failed to make their superiority count until Oyarzabal’s late intervention.
The Olyroos needed until the 51st minute to even muster a shot, such was the dominance of the Spaniards. But the Australians were always targeting a snatch-and-grab victory, and came within touching distance of the final whistle and a crucial point before finally coming undone.
The Olyroos now need at least a point – a draw or a victory – against Egypt in their final group game to progress to the knockout stages.
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AS IT HAPPENED
Spain rattled the crossbar through Oyarzabal in the 20th minute, one of eight shots in the opening stanza, but failed to make their dominance pay against a resolute Australian defence.
And the Aussies continue to frustrate the European giants, with the scorers still untroubled at the 70 minute mark.
Daniel Arzani, who showed plenty of ability with the ball in the first match despite some wayward passing, copped three fouls inside the opening three minutes as he was clearly targeted by the Spaniards from the first whistle.
His threat was on full display as Arzani surged past Gil – who received a yellow card for one of those early fouls on the Aussie – and burst into the box, almost creating a shooting chance.
In the opening minutes, the Australians were defending high up the pitch, showing their aggressive intentions against their more highly-fancied opposition.
Pedri – one of the stars of the Euro 2020 tournament earlier this month – unleashed a ripping volley from the edge of the area, but it was fortunately directed toward Tom Glover in the middle of the goals.
Spain were threatening, and on the 20th minute Spanish captain Oyarzabal darted into the box and sent a scorching strike past Glover – but only into the crossbar.
Spain’s passing stretched the Australian defence, forcing the Australians to drop deeper in their own half as the half wore on. And whenever the Spanish side lost possession, their high press often saw them regain the ball in Australia’s half.
For Australia, an inability to consistently find an open played and pass out of their defensive zone only added to the weight of possession.
In a promising moment in the 51st minute, Denis Genreau scooped a shot over the bar after the Australians claimed the ball in the centre of the park and counterattacked quickly.
Riley McGree soon earned himself a yellow card – his second in consecutive matches – for a sliding tackle when he was caught out of position. That caution ensures he will be suspended for Australia’s final group game.
But Australia’s bright spark was nearly snuffed out two minutes later when Oyarzabal again danced into the box, turned onto his favoured left foot – beating towering Australian central defender Harry Souttar in the process – only to sky his shot well over the bar.
And in the 67th minute, Mitch Duke – Australia’s elder statesman in the side as one of two over-age players taken with the U-23 squad – also received a yellow card, meaning he’ll join McGree on the sidelines against Egypt.
Just past the hour mark, Daniel Arzani was substituted for Marco Tilio – who came off the bench in the opening game to score a screamer against Argentina with his second touch. Lachie Wales was also substituted for defender Kye Rowles, with the Australians shifting to a five-man backline.
Coach Graham Arnold’s tactical shift soon paid dividends. Australia’s wingers began to find more space down the sidelines, pushing further forward and – for the first time in the match – seeing reinforcements arrive into the Spanish box.
In one foray forward in the 64th minute, Duke laid off the ball to McGree whose shot from the edge of the box was sprayed waywards. Within the next five minutes, another two crosses were launched into the Spanish box.
But with the match beginning to open up, Spain continued to create strong chances. In the 69th minute, Dani Olmo blasted the goalwards but found only Glover’s glove.
With 20 minutes remaining, McGree was taken off and replaced by Keanu Baccus and Caleb Watts came on for Denis Genreau.
Spain continued to pour forward – bringing on Real Madrid winger Marco Asensio. Pedri, in his 68th match of a seemingly endless season, slammed another strike straight at Glover.
Then – after 80 gruelling minutes – Asensio cut back in to his left foot and curled in a perfectly-weighted cross to the head of Oyarzabal, who deflected it perfectly toward the back post and into the net.
Graham Arnold responded by throwing on striker Nick D’Agostino, and sent Souttar into the opposition box as a target man for long throw-ins.
Then with only seconds remaining, Nathaniel Atkinson was handed a yellow card for a needless push on Bryan Gil – meaning he joins the ranks of those suspended for the next game.
But Spain held on in relative comfort, the victory seeing them leapfrog Australia into top spot in the group ahead of their final match of the group against Argentina.
Spain finished with 15 shots to Australia’s two.
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