Australia has qualified for the final 16 of the 2006 FIFA world cup with dramatic 2-2 draw against Croatia giving them enough points to qualify being second behind Brasil in Group F.
32 years to the day that the first Socceroos team to appear at the World Cup finals etched out their first ever point with a hard earned draw against Chile in 1974 the first team to return to finals football progressed to the second stage.
The opening two minutes saw Socceroo captain Mark Viduka chasing after a centre of the field break by Croatian skipper Niko Kovac after he stole the ball in the Australian midfield. English referee Graham Poll correctly awarding a foul to Croatia for the Viduka tackle.
The ball 26 yards from goal Darijo Srna took the free kick which he blasted up and around the wall into the top right hand corner of the goal. Even the fully stretched Zeljko Kalac making a surprise start in the Australian goal couldn’t reach it as it opened the scoring for the Croatians. After 3 minutes the Australians were already behind needing at least a goal to qualify for the next stage of the World Cup.
The opportunity should have been presented to them just four minutes later when Viduka with the ball at his feet was tackled in what can only be described as a rugby tackle by Josip Simunic. Somehow everyone except for referee Graham Poll and his assistants saw it. Viduka was rightfully astonished by the referee’s decision as was the rest of the Australian team.
From that point onwards it was all one way traffic as Australia mounted attack after attack on the Croatian goal. Every time being thwarted at the final moment. Kewell and Viduka started to find each other and were becoming more adventurous Kewell forcing an excellent diving save from Stipe Pletikosa in the Croatian goal. Repeated raids on the Croatian goal failed to yield more then a continual shirt pulls by Croatian defenders.
38 minutes elapsed saw the foul that led to a penalty that had to come for Australia after continued altercations in the penalty area - it was a hand ball by Stjepan Tomas from a Brett Emerton cross that was Croatia’s undoing. Former captain Craig Moore took responsibility for the penalty and shot just off centre sending the keeper the wrong way to tie the fixture up at 1-1 with 7 minutes in the half to play.
Dado Prso had the opportunity to restore the advantage and the qualification spot for the Croatian’s on 43 minutes. With a break down the left hand side he was pushed wide by the descending Australian defence but was still able to position himself one on one with Kalac but could only shoot into the side netting.
At halftime Australia had 'qualified' for the final 16 but there was still 45 minutes to play. Croatia had to chase the game whilst Australia had just hold on but that wasn’t possible when Kalac made what is possibly was the biggest error of his career. The perennial understudy had his chance to impress in one of the biggest games in Australian football history but unfortunately for him, the team and the nation, he blew it.
56 minutes into the match Croatia and had hit the lead again, and again had the foot in the door for the final 16 official thanks to a Niko Kovac goal, unofficially due to Kalac’s blunder. Kovac turned Tim Cahll twice whilst dribbling at the top of the box before letting a week-looking shot away at Kalac who looked to have it easily covered but some how it bounced and rolled over his body and into the goal.
At the other end it was the Croatian keeper who was keeping them in the match. Pletikosa performed save after save to deny Harry Kewell twice within one minute. But Kewell wasn’t to be denied again and on 79 minutes John Aloisi flicked on a header to Kewell was all the invitation he needed to control then volley home to advance Australia to the round of 16 at the expense of Croatia.
A goal Harry Kewell later described as the greatest of his career so far. Replays suggest though that Kewell may have been slightly offside after the Alosi header.
In the final 10 minutes of the match 3 players were expelled from the game Dario Simic and Brett Emerton for their 2nd cautions and Josip Simunic after amazingly receiving his 3rd caution for the match in a night that surely English referee Graham Poll wishes never had happened.
Australia move onto to meet Italy in a round of 16 clash in Kaiserslautern whilst Croatia return home to prepare for Euro 2008.