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Al-Faisaly’s Boyle eyeing dream end to season as Australia battle Peru in winner-takes-all World Cup play-off

When he calmly tucked home the first goal into the empty Arsenal net to open the scoring for Hibernian in a 2-1 pre-season victory against Mikel Arteta’s side, Martin Boyle would not have imagined the nature of the challenges he would be facing come the end of the 2021-22 season.

The Aberdeen-born striker was entering his seventh season at Easter Road where he had established himself as a firm favorite for Hibernian fans.

And when he powered in from the penalty spot to complete a famous hat-trick, downing Rangers in the League Cup semifinal in late November, Boyle would not have expected how the second half of his season would unfold.

Yet, here he was, six months later: A beaming smile on his face as he took in the atmosphere in Qatar’s Ahmed bin Ali Stadium — halfway through ticking all three boxes of his club and country objectives of the season, none of which now include success with Hibs.

A $3.7 million January deal saw Boyle swap the green of Hibernian with maroon. Not that of their fiercest rivals, Hearts, thankfully for Hibs supporters, but the maroon of Al-Faisaly in the small Saudi Arabian town of Harmah; some 200 km northwest of the capital Riyadh.

Two contrasting yet equally important objectives were placed on his intray; pulling Al-Faisaly out of the relegation zone and helping them make an impact on their first continental appearance; the 2022 AFC Champions League.

The latter was achieved in style. Boyle’s strike deep in added time to salvage a point against Jordan’s Al-Wehdat meant his side pipped two-time continental champions Al-Sadd and Uzbek powerhouse Nasaf to the top of the group, advancing to the AFC Champions League round of 16 at the first time of asking.

Four months, three goals and one assist on from his debut, Boyle left for international duty with his club side in a much better position than when he joined; they have climbed out of the drop zone, but only just. Up from 15th when he joined, the Maroons are now 13th in the table, one point afloat of relegation with two games to go.

But meanwhile Boyle’s attention has shifted to arguably the most important of his three objectives; ensuring Australia’s run of four consecutive appearances in the FIFA World Cup continues.

Despite being born in Aberdeen and playing his entire career hitherto in Scotland, even representing the country at U16 level, Boyle opted to represent his father’s birthplace of Australia and has amassed 16 caps for the Socceroos since coming on to replace Jamie Maclaren against South Korea back in 2018.

On Tuesday in Doha, it was Boyle’s cross from the right that set up Jackson Irvine’s opener against the UAE. The goal was canceled out by Caio Canedo before Ajdin Hrustic’s half-volley settled the affair late on, sending coach Graham Arnold’s men to the inter-confederation play-off against Peru six days later.

“We are halfway there. It was a good result against the UAE. Victory was the most important thing. We recover well, get back on the training pitch and prepare for the game on Monday,” said Boyle in the aftermath of the victory.

“I thought we kept the ball well in the second half and tired them out a little bit so we could get in attacking positions. I felt we were able to hurt them in behind and with a bit of luck we got the goal. The disappointing part for us was to concede quickly after scoring, but we showed good character and were able to dig deep and get the win.”

The second of his three objectives of the season is now 50 percent done. Standing between Boyle and a FIFA World Cup debut will be a Peru side featuring two familiar Saudi Pro League opponents; Andre Carrillo of Al-Hilal and Christian Cueva of Al-Fateh.

The most recent of Boyle’s three league goals came in a 1-0 win over Cueva’s Al-Fateh, while an encounter against Carrillo’s Al-Hilal later in the month could well determine whether objective number three in the Australian forward’s season is achieved, but now focus is on repeating the trick against Cueva with a place in Group D of the FIFA World Cup, alongside France, Denmark and Tunisia, up for grabs.

“Peru game will be a tough challenge. They are a top team and went to the FIFA World Cup last time, but tonight (UAE game) was a challenge and there are no easy games and you have to earn the right to be at the World Cup. We have to recover well, sleep well and eat good food. Get back on the training pitch and prepare as well as possible.

“It is a nice thing that we played here in Qatar during the qualifiers, so we know all the surroundings, the weather, and we know what the facilities are like so obviously that was a bit of a help for us.”

Hibernian ended the season eighth in the Scottish Premiership; their worst result in nearly a decade, severely damaged by the departure of Boyle who remained the club’s top scorer by the conclusion of the campaign despite having not played in the green jersey since Christmas. But Boyle would have no complaints should the next two weeks bring about successful completion of his to-do list in the Middle East with wins for Australia and Al-Faisaly.

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