A trademark header from forgotten striker Josh Kennedy has booked Australia’s ticket to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after a vital 1-0 win over Iraq at a packed ANZ Stadium on Tuesday.
Needing a win to assure themselves a spot at a third consecutive World Cup, the Socceroos looked like blowing their chance as the stubborn visitors held firm for more than 82 minutes.
But in his first Socceroos appearance in 19 months, Kennedy came off the bench to nod home Mark Bresciano’s cross, seven minutes from time, to send the crowd of 80,532 into delirium.
Australian boss Holger Osieck received a few boos from the home fans when he opted to substitute favourite son Tim Cahill for Kennedy just a few minutes earlier.
But the decision proved a masterstroke as Kennedy did what he does best, giving Iraq goalkeeper Noor Sabri no chance with a well-placed header from just six yards out.
The nail-biting victory means the Socceroos finish second in their group behind Japan and avoided going into the lottery of the play-offs later this year.
Knowing a win over an inexperienced Iraqi side would ensure Australia’s berth for a third straight World Cup, there was a sense of excited anticipation among the fans before kick-off.
And they almost had something to cheer inside two minutes when Cahill almost opened the scoring.
After combining with Robbie Kruse on the edge of the box, the ball eventually fell to Cahill, who blasted a powerful left-foot shot which drew a brilliant reflex save from Sabri in the Iraq goal.
With the visitors content to sit deep and absorb pressure, Australia enjoyed the bulk of the possession and continued to create meaningful chances, with Sasa Ognenovski wasting a clear sight of goal on 15 minutes.
After Iraq failed to clear Luke Wilkshire’s free-kick, Lucas Neill swung in a perfect cross from the right but his central defensive partner could not divert his header on target.
The rest of the half followed a similar theme, with the Socceroos probing without fully testing Sabri.
When they did manage to get a sight on goal the opportunities were falling to Cahill, whose header from Wilkshire’s corner lacked the power to trouble the goalkeeper, while another shot went harmlessly across the face of goal.
The best chance came 10 minutes before the break and again it fell to Australia’s talisman.
Matt McKay got down the left and swung in a cross which was spilled by the Iraqi captain, with the ball falling behind Cahill, whose acrobatic effort over his shoulder went just the wrong side of the post.
Iraq made a strong start to the second half with Saif Salman’s long-range effort forcing Mark Schwarzer to scramble down to his left to save inside the first two minutes.
Australia soon regained the initiative, with Bresciano getting two shots on goal in the space of a minute, one sailing high and wide and the other a tame effort straight at Sabri.
Searching for ways to unlock the stubborn Iraq defence, Holger Osieck introduced young star Tom Rogic on the hour and the Celtic midfielder immediately lifted the tempo.
The Socceroos thought they had the crucial breakthrough 25 minutes from time when a poor headed clearance landed perfectly for Kruse to volley home from just outside the box.
But celebrations soon turned to despair, as Iranian referee Faghani Alireza had already blown for a foul by Ognenovski in the lead-up.
The close call only added to the tension, which soon turned to shock among the home fans as Cahill made way for Kennedy.
And the beanpole striker took just six minutes to make an impact, sending his header past Sabri to get celebrations underway.
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