AUSTRALIA 2 - IRAQ 1
A pair of late goals to Tim Cahill and Archie Thompson have put Australia on course to qualify for the 2014 World Cup as the Socceroos claimed a dramatic 2-1 win over Iraq in Doha this morning.
Seemingly heading towards defeat when substitute Alaa Abdul-Zahra put Iraq ahead in the 72nd minute, Australia equalised eight minutes later thanks to a bullet header from Cahill after an inswinging corner from Matt McKay.
With 10 minutes still to play, the Socceroos were clearly imbued with belief and in the 84th minute they had their reward. McKay then found Tommy Oar in space and the youngster curled in a superb cross that Thompson coolly headed past Iraqi goalkeeper Noor Sabri.
With Oman defeating Jordan 2-1 in the hours before, the result has hoisted Australia into second place in their five-team group after four matches of the final stage of qualification.
It was a result that was nothing less than the Socceroos deserved as they created more chances and effectively dominated the opening hour of the match without getting a reward.
Critically, Australia can now turn to the final four matches of qualification with confidence as three of their next four matches are at home.
As predicted, coach Holger Osieck made true to his training formation and left Marco Bresciano out of his starting side, leaving Carl Valeri and Mile Jedinak to play as two holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Australia began positively as they sought to close down their opponents and hold possession, a clear directive from Osieck after failing to do both in Jordan last month.
Captain Lucas Neill began brightly and nearly scored his first international goal after 10 minutes when he fired in a long-range shot that narrowly missed the top corner.
Another chance went begging nine minutes later when Robbie Kruse bamboozled the Iraqi defence to set up Cahill, but the talisman couldn't get enough power on the shot and the ball was blocked by Salam Shaker. Cahill almost redeemed himself with a scintillating effort soon after that Noor tipped over.
The Socceroos could have taken the lead early in the second half when Jedinak's effort flashed wide but an even better chance went begging in the 56th minute when Kruse missed from close range after a fine combination between Brett Holman and Kruse.
Controversy ensued two minutes later however when Nashat Akram's through ball was played into space for Younis Mahmood, only to be pulled back by Neill.
While Mahmood probably wouldn't have reached the ball before goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, Neill's intervention, as the last man, was a risky play and his subsequent yellow card could easily have been a red.
That card rules Neill out of the Socceroos' next qualifier – a situation that also applies to Valeri, who received a first-half booking.
This was a sign of how Iraq believed they could exploit Australia. As it turned out, it was exactly how Alaa scored the opener when Younis Mahmood knocked down Akram's long pass.
With 15 minutes to play Osieck finally made his first change, taking off Alex Brosque and bringing on Thompson. Kruse was also checked out for Oar. Both would be game-changing substitutions.
Cahill's brilliant header was typical of what he's done so often for the Socceroos over the past decade and as soon as Australia equalised, a winner suddenly seemed inevitable.
That came when Oar and Thompson's freshness proved critical, turning around what seemed a potentially disastrous night for Australia just minutes before.
Instead, they now head into their next match - against Oman in March at ANZ Stadium – surely believing that a place in Brazil in two years' time is now theirs to lose.