Soccer-After long break, Australia start World Cup qualification 'from scratch'

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By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - After nearly 18 months without an international match, Australia's World Cup qualification cranks back into gear on Thursday with a clash against Kuwait in the Gulf state and a clean slate for players to cement their positions.

Unbeaten in their first four qualifiers before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 schedule, the 'Socceroos' are top of Asia's Group B and well placed to advance to the next phase ahead of four matches in 10 days in Kuwait City.

The long break has left coach Graham Arnold with plenty of questions, including who to pick as captain and how to replace the playmaking abilities of resting midfielders Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic.

"We’re starting from scratch," Arnold told reporters in a video call.

"Yes, we’re in a good position at the moment. We’re not talking about the past. We’re only talking about the present and what’s now and that is Kuwait.

"Fortunately for us, we’ve been able to analyse what they’ve been doing because they’ve played a good 10 games in COVID whereas we haven’t played any."

Arnold was cagey about his team selection but conceded that uncapped Italy-based full back Fran Karacic would be in his starting 11.

"He will start because Rhyan Grant didn’t arrive until late yesterday," said Arnold of Sydney FC defender Grant.

"So it will be great to see (Karacic) on the pitch."

Uncapped midfielder Riley McGree, on loan at Birmingham City, will also hope to make his international debut as a number 10 in the absence of Mooy and Rogic but will have competition from Jackson Irvine and Germany-based Ajdin Hrustic.

"Ajdin has come in, in my view, a completely different player than what he was last time we saw him when he was in Holland," said Arnold.

"He’s at a great club in Germany, he’s doing exceptionally well but we’ve got some great depth in those positions."

(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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