Inside the three minutes of madness that almost ended Australia’s World Cup dream

Doha: Before Australian hearts exploded with joy at the Al Janoub Stadium, they sank like a stone. Word had filtered through that the unthinkable had happened across town, and an equation that had been delicately poised in their favour was suddenly no longer adding up in the right way for the Socceroos.

They were always trying to win against Denmark, but in the back of their minds they knew a draw with also be good enough to sneak into the round of 16 – on the seemingly safe presumption that France would take care of business against Tunisia, in the other Group D match that was played concurrently at Education City Stadium.

But Les Bleus, who were already through, rested Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and most of their other first-choice players, leaving the door ever-so-slightly ajar for the Eagles of Cartharge.

Just as it seemed Graham Arnold’s men had settled into a comfortable defensive groove, Wahbi Khazri found the back of the net. 1-0 to Tunisia, who suddenly had one foot in the knockout phase, 58 minutes in.

“It was just a quiet word from Tony Vidmar, in my ear,” said Socceroos assistant coach Rene Meulensteen, the first man in the dugout to hear the news.

“No more than information, [no] reason to jump at it and panic. The funny thing was, probably a minute later, we scored.”

Cue Mathew Leckie’s moment of magic on the hour mark for Australia, which changed the situation once again before Meulensteen even had the chance to tell his boss.

“That’s when I told Arnie, to say, ‘Listen, Tunisia’s winning 1-0,’” he said.

“And I grabbed Milos Degenek as well to say, ’Get in a huddle and tell the players to make sure that they know where we are, they’re winning 1-0, we have to win, we have to keep a clean sheet, we have to keep the concentration, we have to keep the focus.”

The problem was none of Degenek’s teammates initially believed him, and some weren’t even listening.

“Once we scored, I ran over to Arnie and he told me so I told the boys,” Degenek said. “The boys thought it was me psyching them up so we don’t lose, but it was actually me being serious – they’re winning, so we have to win.”

Added Meulensteen, with a grin: “Well, that’s the type of guy [Degenek] is. That’s unfortunate!”

Striker Mitchell Duke must have been zoned in, because he had no idea what was going on until he got to the mixed zone, and he was told who won by Australian media.

“No, we didn’t really [know] to be honest,” he said.

“Obviously once we went 1-0 up it was on us to just close out the game. I actually didn’t know. I was just focusing on us and just making sure – as long as we won, we knew we were through and that’s all that mattered.”

Bailey Wright, who played the last 15 minutes as part of a five-man defence, had heard murmurs from the crowd that Tunisia had taken the lead while he was warming up.

“Arnie asked me to warm up when it was when it was 0-0. And then we had a few shouts that Tunisia were winning 1-0 so I wasn’t sure, maybe, if I’d get on all, or what would happen, or if we’d throw a few on and go win the game,” Wright said.

“Next minute, ‘Lecks’ worked his magic, scored, and I was already warming up ready to go. I knew Arnie had, in the back of his mind, that he was potentially going to change things and I saw that they were bringing on the big man [Andreas Cornelius] so I thought this could be an opportunity to get on and try and get into a bit of a wrestle at throw-ins, headers.”

From there it was a matter of holding on for dear life. With the bus officially parked, and the Danish needing another goal to stay alive, the Socceroos dug their heels in.

“I have to say, I’m so enormously proud of everybody in the way that they man-managed the game throughout the second half. Absolutely top-notch,” Meulensteen said.

“Goals do change games. But there’s always this momentum of three to five minutes after you score, you have to be really on your guard, which we really honed in to the players to make sure that they are ready, and [it] just doesn’t drop off just a little bit.

“They were so focused, they were so motivated, they knew what was at stake. I can’t be more proud of what they’ve achieved.”

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