Oman were denied the first shock of the AFC Asian Cup 2007 when substitute Tim Cahill scored an injury-time equaliser as pre-tournament favourites Australia drew 1-1 with the Gulf Sultanate at the Rajamangala Stadium on Sunday.
The result mirrored Saturday’s result between Group A hosts Thailand and Iraq, leaving all four teams level on points and goal difference after the first round of matches.
Badar Mubarak looked to be the hero for Oman when he opened the scoring in the 32nd minute and just as it was looking as though Australia’s competition debut would end in defeat, the Everton midfielder continued his knack of scoring vital goals for his country when he levelled the tie right at the death.
It was rough justice on the lively Omanis but the four minutes of injury time were always a possibility as their frustrating time-wasting tactics came back to haunt them.
The opening 10 minutes of the match was a scrappy affair with neither side creating any clear cut chances until Ismail Ali, Oman’s top scorer in qualifying with four goals, headed Yousuf Sha’ban’s corner over the bar.
Oman again came close to breaking the deadlock five minutes later when Sha’ban dived into the six-yard box in a desperate attempt to get his head on the end of an Ahmed Hadid free-kick swung in from the left.
The Socceroos seemed to be labouring in the Bangkok humidity and shortly after Brett Emerton had become the first player to enter Seychellois referee Eddy Maillet’s book Australia mustered their clearest effort at goal.
Harry Kewell, who had earlier attempted to win a penalty by falling to the ground under minimal contact from defender Hassan Yousuf Madhafar, was perfectly placed in the apex of the six-yard-box to hammer home Luke Wilkshire’s 20th minute free-kick but the injury-prone Liverpool attacker took his eye off the ball and knocked it across goal instead of into the back of the net.
The Gulf side, playing in only their second Asian Cup finals, took the lead in the 32nd minute when Imad Ali picked up possession on the left side deep into Austrailian territory.
The Qatar Sports Club forward, who scored three times in Oman’s debut Asian Cup campaign, tried to set up Ismail Al Ajmi but while he failed to connect with pass the ball landed fortuitously into the path of Badar Mubarak whose low shot had too much purchase for Mark Schwarzer to keep out.
Australia had the chance to hit back immediately but recently-signed Newcastle United striker Mark Viduka swept a free-kick high and wide before Oman goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi was out sharply to deny Mark Bresciano, after the Palermo midfielder had superbly controlled the ball to set up the 41st minute chance.
Three minutes after the restart Oman almost doubled their lead when Ahmed Mubarak cleverly created space for a low shot from just outside the area, but Schwarzer got down well to push the ball to safety.
The Middlesbrough keeper again came to his side’s rescue in the 70th minute with a timely one-handed save from Imad Ali’s header following a move that started with Oman keeper Ali Al Habsi punching clear a Wilkshire corner.
With 13 minutes left to play Schwarzer was again the saviour for Australia with a smart block from Fawzi Basheer, although the midfield dynamo, who came on for goal scorer Badar Mubarak on the hour mark, should have put the game beyond any doubt.
Oman were punished for the profligacy and their numerous unnecessary injury stoppages when Cahill fired home the rebound after Al Habsi could only parry Bresciano’s shot back to the feet of the former Samoa youth international, who was only cleared to play for Australia in 2004.