"We've been playing great. All the statistics show that."
That one post-match comment after Australia's 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw against Saudi Arabia in November fuelled critics of Socceroos coach Graham Arnold.
A subsequent goalless draw with China meant Australia's path to Qatar had suddenly become far more treacherous, bumped out of the two automatic qualifying places in the group with four matches to play.
Former Socceroos goalkeeper Mark Bosnich launched into Arnold's comments later that month, saying that it would put "a target" on players and set them up for failure, and that if Australia's form can't turn around they'd be unlikely to qualify.
Arnold has now had another hurdle thrown in his way after testing positive to COVID-19 as his team assembles in Melbourne ahead of must-win fixtures over Vietnam and Oman in the next fortnight.
It means the 58-year-old will mostly likely be forced to sit out Thursday's clash with the Vietnamese at AAMI Park.
Arnold will be allowed to leave isolation on Thursday but can only be pitchside for the game subject to clearing additional medical protocols.
If he's feeling the pressure of external criticism however, Arnold is doing a good job of sticking to his guns publicly and says he's happy to be the focus of criticism if it allows his players to get on with achieving their goal.
"The players read everything. And I do believe that the way players are these days mentally is that they don't handle criticism well," Arnold said.
"There's a lot of hate out there in social media and things like that but I've always been a coach that has always been supportive of the players and players are my main priority
"When you say about getting stick about boys playing great. Well, I had to pick the boys back up after that game.
"Harry Souttar is one of the most popular players I think I've ever worked with and when there's half a dozen players in tears in the dressing room after he's done his ACL, then I've got to pick those boys up to get them ready for another game in three days.
"The last thing they need me to do is to go in front of the media and criticise them."
Arnold, a former Socceroos striker who played in the Netherlands, Belgium and Japan, still firmly believes Australia are on track to reach a fifth straight World Cup finals.
To do so without any favours from other sides essentially requires four wins from their four remaining games, including pivotal clashes with rivals Japan and group leaders Saudi Arabia in March.
Arnold, however, says qualification, again, is an achievement he wants for his players, not his own coaching resume.
"All I'm here for is to help these kids fulfil their dreams," he said.
"Help these younger kids have a life - a football journey - a life in football, because what I've experienced in my life, as a player and as a coach, I've got more blood in my body about football and passion in football than anything else.
"I've had the best life and that has been as a professional footballer and a coach.
"That's all I want for the rest of the boys ... to have that. If they can have that journey that I've had, then I'll be delighted for them."
Australian Associated Press
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