The Socceroos booked their four-yearly World Cup date with destiny today, surviving a scare from a 10-man Solomon Islands side for a 2-1 win in their Oceania qualifier.
Australia's hard-fought victory in today's second leg of the qualifier at Lawson Tama Stadium gave it a 9-1 aggregate win to secure a berth in November's World Cup playoff against South American opposition. While Saturday night's 7-0 first leg rout in Sydney meant the Solomons had to score an impossible eight goals to make the tie interesting, today's win in oppressive, humid conditions was much more difficult for the Socceroos.
After Australia had led 1-0 at halftime courtesy of a goal from Archie Thompson, the game came alive early in the second half when Socceroos defender Lucas Neill conceded a penalty after fouling striker Henry Fa'arodo in the box.
The resulting spot-kick by Commins Menapi was saved by Australian keeper Zeljko Kalac but in the ensuing ruckus around the ball Solomons player George Lui was sent off for kicking Kalac. And Singaporean referee Maidin Chamsul didn't stop there, ordering the kick be retaken because Kalac had moved off his line before the initial attempt - much to the annoyance of the Socceroos. Fa'arodo stepped up for the second attempt and made no mistake in levelling the scores to send the 20,000-plus fans in the stands and hillside surrounding the stadium into raptures.
But the Solomons' joy lasted just 10 minutes before Brett Emerton smashed home from close range to put Australia back in control. While Australia didn't manage to add to its scoreline it made several substitutions to allow new coach Guus Hiddink to look at some of his fringe players.
The brave Solomon Islanders pressed hard in the last few minutes for an equaliser but couldn't find a way through Australia's defence, while midfielder Vince Grella was influential in blunting their attacks in a holding role.
Italian-based Grella also created Thompson's goal with a delightful lofted ball for the Melbourne Victory striker to slot home. Hiddink made five changes to the starting team which romped home on Saturday night and tinkered with his formation, favouring a 4-4-2 with Grella and Marco Bresciano anchoring the midfield. The Socceroos now face a two-legged playoff in mid-November against whichever South American team finishes fifth in that region's World Cup group with the winner advancing to the 2006 finals in Germany. At present Uruguay is in fifth place with two rounds remaining while Paraguay, Colombia and Chile are also in the mix to be Australia's opponent.
It was the Socceroos last game in the Oceania Football Confederation after nearly 40 years. Australia joins the Asian Football Confederation from next year.
written by Guy Hand/AAP