The Socceroos are bracing for the long-term loss of Harry Souttar, who sustained a potentially serious knee injury in Thursday night’s heated draw with Saudi Arabia.
The centre-back was stretchered off the field at Sydney’s Commbank Stadium late in the second half of the World Cup qualifying stalemate after falling awkwardly while defending Australia’s penalty area amid a Saudi onslaught.
At the very least he will almost certainly miss the national team’s next match, against China in the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday morning. But the nature of the injury could yet sideline the towering 23-year-old for an extended period.
It is a major blow for Souttar, who has established himself as a regular starter for Stoke City in the Championship and has been linked with a number of Premier League clubs in the lead-up to the January transfer window.
“It’s very serious,” said manager Graham Arnold. “At this moment I’m really down and devastated for Harry. He’s such a great kid. I believe he’s the best centre-back in Asia, and if it turns out to be a bad injury it’s not only a blow for Harry, it’s a big blow for us.
“It’d probably be too early for me to say exactly what it is because at the moment he’s in quite a lot of pain. He’s getting scanned first thing tomorrow morning, but I don’t think he’ll be coming to the UAE for the China game.”
The consequences for the Socceroos would be significant, with qualification for Qatar 2022 not yet assured and at least five matches still to play – depending whether they qualify automatically or have to go through play-offs. If he has ruptured his ACL, it would leave pushing it to return in time even for the World Cup, which starts next November.
In the immediate future it means another selection headache for Arnold, who is already missing Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic and Adam Taggart, as he turns his attention to tidying up some of the spottier elements of his side’s game before the China clash.
One of those was a lack of cohesion in attack despite some solid individual performances. Mat Leckie, Ajdin Hrustic and Jackson Irvine missed chances and Awer Mabil’s free-kick forced a spectacular double save from Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Alyami.
A positive was James Jeggo, whose deployment in a deeper-lying midfield role in his 10th cap helped stem the Saudi attack and allowed Irvine and Hrustic to float further up the pitch.
“We practise the attacking patterns at training and we look at how we can create chances,” Arnold said. “I’m someone who always looks at the positive side of things and as I said to the boys in the dressing room it was one of those nights where the ball wouldn’t go in the back of the net.
“I can’t complain about the performance and the effort was very good. There was a lot of energy, [but] we’re already thinking about the China game.”
The result means Australia remain in second spot in Group B, three points behind Saudi Arabia but only one and two points ahead of Japan and Oman respectively after Japan beat Vietnam 1-0 overnight and Oman drew with China.
It leaves the Socceroos’ path to qualification in the balance but also in their hands, with five games remaining in the third phase, starting with China at a neutral venue in Sharjah. The top two nations in the six-team group qualify automatically, while third place-getters will be sent through play-offs.
“We’re in a great spot, it’s all in our hands,” Arnold said. “We’re in a great position rather than relying on other results. The most important thing now is to go play China and get three points and have a great Christmas.”