A DRAW against the South American champions and an exit from the Confederations Cup.
But the Socceroos will carry pride and belief with them back home after a much changed side put in their best performance of the competition – of any competition for over a year – in a thrilling 1-1 draw with Chile.
It was the kind of complete, measured and high energy display Socceroos fans have been yearning for ,and coach Ange Postecoglou has long promised they were capable of.
There will be renewed confidence after this going in to the crucial World Cup qualifiers later this year, and for that alone the trip to Russia can now be considered a minor success.
James Troisi had given Australia a first half lead they had earned through graft and guile, before Chile substitute Martin Rodriguez levelled the match from close range on 67 minutes.
Postecoglou made six changes from the team that drew 1-1 with Cameroon, and shuffled his pack in terms of positions, too, leaving two of the side’s best players, in Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic, benched for a must win game.
In a first half of intent and quality from Australia, however, they weren’t missed at all.
Chile made five changes of their own but retained their main attacking weapons from the start in Sanchez, Vargas and midfield force of nature Arturo Vidal.
However, if they thought they were in a for an easy evening at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, they were swiftly disabused of that notion by some rugged Socceroos challenges, flirting at times with illegality, and neat passing, with Australia seeing more of the ball in the opening period than their more fancied opponents.
Chile were not without threat but the back three of Trent Sainsbury, Mark Milligan and Ryan McGowan were immense. They had to be. Sanchez was in the mood.
A searching ball over the top saw the Arsenal man take it down on his chest and foot from the air without breaking stride. Exceptional. A goal beckoned as he surged in to the box but Milligan, making up the ground admirably, just got enough of the ball to avoid conceding a penalty. VAR proved Milligan’s innocence, despite protests from the Chileans.
Australia were mixing quick passing with, at times ragged aggression. Massimo Luongo and Jackson Irvine were snapping in to tackles in the holding roles, the former rightly booked on 20 minutes when going through the back of Vidal.
Troisi and Aziz Behich followed him, as did Cahill, making his 100th appearance for the national team, following a particularly ugly foul on Charles Aranguiz on the half-hour mark.
Half chances came and went for both sides before a dramatic final 10 minutes of the half.
Australia were first to threaten. Troisi had a shot blocked, but saw the ball come back to and he chipped a fine delivery in to the box to pick out Luongo’s run. He could only shoot first time at goalkeeper Carlos Bravo.
Australia would not be denied for long. Kruse and Sainsbury double teamed to pick the pocket of Vargas in the centre circle before surging forward. Sainsbury was in uncharted territory and couldn’t get his shot away, but did enough to work it to Kruse whose angled drive through a crowd scene found Troisi in space. His cool, delicate chip over the driving Bravo was exquisite. Suddenly that hope was being nurtured in to belief.
Chile responded, as champions do. Sanchez demonstrated his class once more, wriggling free of three challenges on the left touchline to launch an attack that eventually was repelled on the Australian line, just, by first Milligan’s knee then McGowan’s sliding clearance.
As the clock ticked in to added time at the end of the first half, Sainsbury had a glorious chance to double the lead, ballooning over the bar from close range when clear in space. His blushes were spared by the linesman’s flag. Though, had it been put away, that ruling would surely have been overturned on VAR.
Australia began the second period with fire still in their bellies, Luongo and Cahill winning battles, Kruse pushing on, a succession of crosses testing Bravo in the Chile goal without managing to quite hit their mark.
Postecoglou, in search of the two goal winning margin required, sought to keep things fresh. Cahill was replaced by Mathew Leckie, Kruse moving inside. Vidal was booked soon after. Chile enduring a more uncomfortable evening than most had predicted.
Sanchez bustled in to the box and stabbed a shot straight at Ryan. The partisan crowd tried to rouse their team. McGowan slid in to cut out a ball through the centre Vargas was set to exploit.
Just after the hour mark Maclaren replaced Juric. Australia were still finding space and movement, a long diagonal from Behich picking out Kruse in the box, he should have made more of the chance but was put off by the covering defender and lost the track of the ball.
With both sides now needing a single goal to ensure progression to the semi-finals, the game opened up. Troisi fired a thunderbolt that only cleared the crossbar by a few inches.
But then, a sucker punch. After a Chile cross wasn’t cleared, the ball helped on from the head of Vargas, substitute Rodriguez showing a poacher’s instinct to get to the ball before Sainsbury to stab is inside the post off Ryan’s thigh.
Maclaren had a glorious chance on 70 minutes to restore Australia’s lead. But, played in to the box in space he sliced his first time effort wide. He almost made up for it six minutes later, exchanging smart passes with Kruse to put his teammate in on goal but another, more taxing, chance went begging.
In the final 20 minutes Chile grew more commanding in to the game as Australia tired, justifiably – though continued to harry and hunt in packs in search of turnovers and an avenue to goal.
There was to be none. The point they take from this fixture seems scant reward for the effort and guts Australia showed in going head to head with one of the world’s best and not looking out of place.