New generation of Socceroos face big obstacles at Asian Cup
THOSE charged with defending Australia's Asian Cup title in the United Arab Emirates represent a new generation of Socceroos to the team that hoisted the trophy on home soil in 2015.
For the first time since the 2006 World Cup, retired record goalscorer Tim Cahill won't be carrying the hopes of the nation, and the man who lifted that trophy in Sydney, Mile Jedinak, is also gone from the international scene.
Ange Postecoglu's reign as coach ended late last year and Graham Arnold was the man charged with leading Australia's title defence after Bert van Marwijk's brief tenure for the 2018 World Cup.
As well as having to fill the goalscoring and leadership void left by Cahill and Jedinak's retirements, Arnold has also been hit by knee injuries to key midfielder Aaron Mooy and hotshot youngster Daniel Arzani - who have both been ruled out of the tournament.
There are also concerns about the fitness of key attacking weapons Mathew Leckie (hamstring) and Tom Rogic (knee) heading into the tournament.
Veteran Mark Milligan, appointed captain in succession to Jedinak, says the absence of someone like Mooy is a blow, but is also confident the depth of talent in the Socceroos squad should absorb the absences.
"We're able to fill those voids. Obviously injuries happen and players miss out," Milligan said.
"While you'd love to have Mooysie here, the fact that we're able to have boys come in and fill those roles and have that trust in a number of players is very important.
"You need a squad to do well in any tournament and we're lucky enough to have that at the moment."
Australia at least comes into the tournament full of confidence after a bright start under Arnold.
In four pre-tournament friendlies Australia have thumped Kuwait, earned a last-gasp 1-1 draw with South Korea, thrashed Lebanon and earlier this week belted Oman 5-0 in a behind-closed-doors match in Dubai.
The return of 13 goals in four matches under Arnold with just one conceded is all fans could have asked, while the emergence of new talent such as Awer Mabil, Scottish-born winger Martin Boyle and in-form A-League prospect Chris Ikonomidis hints at a bright new generation of talent.
Australia's defence begins against Jordan in Al-Ain on Sunday, the start of an awkward group stage.
Jordan defeated Australia in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and Syria showed they're no pushovers as Australia laboured past them in the regional playoffs for Russia.
Palestine are the weakest team in the group but tipped by many to ruffle some feathers in their second Asian Cup, particularly in a Gulf nation close to home.
Should Arnold's men negotiate their group safely, sterner challenges await in the knockout stages of the expanded 24-team tournament.
Japan were the only Asian nation to get past the group stages of the World Cup and are undefeated under coach Hajime Moriyasu following their Russian exploits.
South Korea boast the tournament's star player in Tottenham's Son Heung-Min, and an experienced coach in Portuguese Paulo Bento.
Iran, under the mentorship of former Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz, are also expected to perform well.