The Socceroos are just one point away from qualifying for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa after Wodonga's Josh Kennedy sent Australia to a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan in Sydney last night.
The win virtually assured Australia one of the top two automatic qualifying spots in Asia’s Group A and an appearance at successive World Cup finals for the first time, but their fate won’t be sealed until June.
Bahrain’s 1-0 win over Qatar in Manama this morning denied the Socceroos official qualification but it would take a catastrophic collapse for them not to make it now.
A draw against Qatar in Doha on June 6 will get them over the line or, failing that, they would need a point from their remaining two home clashes against Bahrain (June 10) and Japan (June 17).
Even in the unlikely event they lose all three matches, they could still qualify directly if other results go their way and, at worst, they would still clinch third place and a playoff chance.
It seems only a matter of when, and not if, Australia will confirm only their third World Cup finals appearance after competing in West Germany in 1974 and Germany in 2006.
In front of 57,292 fans on a wet Sydney night, Australia recovered from a poor first-half performance to secure a gutsy win at ANZ Stadium.
Coach Pim Verbeek’s decision to bring on striker Kennedy in the second half paid almost instant dividends when his header broke the deadlock in the 66th minute, before Harry Kewell put the win beyond doubt with a 73rd-minute penalty.
Australia did it all without star midfielder Tim Cahill, who had been battling a calf strain and was left on the bench, while man-of-the-match Mark Bresciano, Michael Beauchamp and Carl Valeri all overcame injuries to play their part in the win.
"I’m very pleased and I think the medical staff did a great job," Verbeek said.
"Bresciano played a great game and he couldn’t even walk when he arrived here (with a back injury).
"I’m very proud of the players … they were patient and organised."
Socceroos captain Lucas Neill said the side got a "kick up the bum" at halftime after a disappointing first-half performance in which Australia failed to find any rhythm despite a week-long preparation.
It obviously worked as they were a different side in the second half.
First midfielder Jason Culina forced a top-class save out of Uzbekistan goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov with a brilliant, 25-metre swerving shot.
Then Kennedy, who came on for hard-working Celtic striker Scott McDonald, leapt to meet a Bresciano cross and brilliantly steer in a header for his sixth goal in just 12 international appearances.
Any worries about an Uzbek comeback were killed off seven minutes later when Hull City midfielder Richard Garcia, surprisingly handed his first Socceroos start in Cahill’s absence, was brought down in the box in a clumsy challenge by Hayrulla Karimov.
Kewell then stepped up and cooly slotted the penalty, just as he has done several times with his Turkish club Galatasaray this season.
Bresciano, who had Australia’s best chance of the first half, was again involved in the second goal, looping the ball to Garcia before he was brought down.
An offside ruling denied a late goal for the Uzbeks, who visibly tired throughout the match - unsurprising considering the short turnaround and hectic travel schedule following their 4-0 win over Qatar on Saturday.
Star midfielder Server Djeperov was impressive but the Uzbeks must now focus on clinching third place in the group to earn a playoff against the third-placed Group B team for a shot at New Zealand.
Australia sit atop Group A with 13 points ahead of Japan (11), who are also on the verge of qualifying and only need one win from their remaining three games.
Bahrain (7) are now in the box seat to claim third spot ahead of Uzbekistan (4) and Qatar (4).
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