Socceroos secure World Cup spot

Posted by Quinn Jones

As the final whistle rang and Peter Allen’s ‘I Go To Rio’ blared out across Sydney’s Olympic Park, the jubilant crowd singing along as fireworks exploded and tinsel flittered down as heavily as the rain had done for much of the night, it was easy to believe this World Cup qualification process for Australia had been a thing of simple ease, that the Socceroos’ baby had indeed been smiling on them the whole time and that they were always destined to go to Rio.

But in reality it had been tough, enduring, dismal and at times downright awful.

Fittingly, then, that on a cold and miserably wet night the Socceroos dreams of sunny, warm Brazil were finally realised with a 1-0 win over Iraq. Even more fittingly, that their dreams should come down to one last game, and that game should mimic their entire campaign.

With three games to go, the Socceroos backs were against the wall. But a fighting 1-1 draw away to Japan followed by a resounding 4-0 victory over Jordan had left Australia the task of putting away the already eliminated and massively under-strength Iraq to ensure a third consecutive World Cup finals.

And for the third straight time, Socceroos boss Holger Osieck sent out an unchanged line-up to do battle, putting his faith in the same men who had all but saved the campaign against Japan and Jordan.

Australia came out firing. The game was only two minutes old when Tim Cahill could have, and more than likely should have, put the hosts ahead. The New York Red Bulls player found himself inside the box with the ball at his feet, but his well-struck shot could find only find the outstretched hand of goalkeeper Noor Sabri Abbas.

Socceroos defender Sasa Ognenovski was the next to threaten, but his cushioned header did not have enough direction and harmlessly flew past the post.

During these moments, Iraq looked lost, unable to find a suitable rhythm while failing to disrupt their hosts. Thrown into disarray by the pre-game withdrawals of veteran campaigners Younis Mahmoud and Nashat Akram, Iraq manager Vladimir Petrovic was forced to throw a number of youngsters into the cauldron. And during the first 45 minutes, the gamble looked likely to fail. It was no surprise when the first yellow was shown to a man in white.

But Australia were failing to convert their chances into a strong lead. Cahill again was a wasteful culprit, spurning two chances in quick succession, and as the half drew to a close, there was a building sensation that this was going to be one of those nights that could swing either way.

Right on cue, at the start of the second half, Iraq’s youngsters came out to play. There had been glimpses of their potential in the first half, but now they seemed at ease with their surroundings -- calm on the ball, efficient with their passing and capable of constructing threatening attacks.

Australia, on the other hand, were lacking cohesion, moving too quickly or slowly and becoming increasingly desperate.

Then the rain began to fall. Every slip was magnified, every loose ball dismayed.

Osieck had seen enough and rang the changes. First, the young dynamo Tom Rogic was freed. His introduction almost had the desired result, but the roar of a goal was quickly replaced by boos directed at the referee’s whistle.

Osieck called on the tall timber, Josh Kennedy. But to bring on the man many supporters still refer to as ‘Jesus’ -- amazingly, he did at one time look uncannily like the son of God -- Osieck had to remove the talismanic Cahill. Angry words looked to have been exchanged as player passed manager, adding to the boiling pot of emotions that at one time could only be felt, but now could be experienced through all five senses.

Still no joy. Last roll of the dice. The quick and wily Archie Thompson made his entrance and suddenly, Osieck had no more cards to play.

Kennedy did though. With only seven minutes left on the clock, Australia were throwing everything at the Iraqi defence. Thompson and right-back Luke Wilkshire were working the right channel when Mark Bresciano appeared as a target on the inside. The former Serie A player was given a surprising amount of room just outside the box but, even more unexpectedly, instead of unleashing one of his famous rockets, swung a delicate cross over the defence and onto Kennedy’s head. The giant striker did the rest.

All that was left was for Australia was to hold out for the remainder of the game, which they did. Cheers, explosions and Peter Allen followed.

After the game, Osieck refused to answer any questions about the past, present or future campaigns -- namely Brazil 2014. There would be time for that, just not tonight. This was a night of celebration. And after enduring a dramatic game to finish off a dramatic campaign, perhaps he is right.

Just try telling Peter Allen that.

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