AGAINST the ropes, battered by a barrage of upper-cuts from fans and left hooks from the media, and supposedly dogged by internal discord, the Socceroos last night produced a display full of the character that has been missing throughout this campaign to force themselves into the second round.
After appalling displays in their opening two Asian Cup games, against Oman and Iraq, the Socceroos finally took the advice of their most recognised player, Harry Kewell, and “pulled the finger out”.
The result was a 4-0 hiding that ultimately flattered Australia and wasn't assured until 10 minutes from time, when skipper Mark Viduka took a Tim Cahill cross on the chest, held off a challenge from Niweat Siriwong, and dinked his shot past the keeper and in off the chest of the impeccable Suree Sukha.
It wasn't a smashing performance by any means from the Roos. Indeed, most of the best football on this wet night at the Rajamangala was dished up the hosts, who continued to play with the verve and swerve that has won them countless admirers around Asia, but ultimately hasn't been enough to propel them into the quarter finals.
Sometimes, in football, as in life, there is no justice. The Thais have produced the goods in all three of their games and finished up with four points.
The Socceroos, by contrast, have shone in only their final game and are through to a quarter final.
Before getting into a dissection of Australia's latest performance, let me take a moment to reflect on what has been one of the joys of this Asian Cup, watching the Thais wow Asia.
In Sukha, Thailand have the Asian Dani Alves, an incredible combination of top-notch technique and remarkable drive. One second he's overlapping down the right wing, twisting and turning, getting beyond his defender, whipping a cross in, the next he is back in central midfield making a vital challenge to break up a Socceroos counter-attack, and then a second or so later he's deep in his own penalty box acting as the last line of cover. Remarkable.
Tragic that Viduka's clincher came off him, but who else would have had the energy to be there?
As I'd noted in my comment ahead of this game, he truly has been a revelation and would be a prized pick-up for any team around the world.
And he wouldn't be the only one. Everywhere you looked the Thais were excelling. While he might have been beaten aerially by Michael Beauchamp for the Socceroos opener, central defender Kiatpruwat Siaweao has been great to watch, a model of composure and comfort on the ball, thanks to a cultured left foot. Ultimately he limped off here and Thailand's defence suffered.
In midfield, they have had dynamic buzzers like Dakskorn Thonglao (only a substitute last night but brilliant in the opening two games), skipper Tawan Sripan and Suchao Nutnum, all comfortable on the ball and pacey enough to really trouble the Socceroos midfield.
Vinnie Grella will be having nightmares for weeks seeing a bunch of Thai midfielders bearing down on him.
Their performances will live in the memory and manager Chanvit Polchovin was spot on, but ultimately they couldn't break down the Socceroos stubborn and desperate resistance at the back.
Beleaguered manager Graham Arnold had called for some ‘spark' in the build-up to this game and in Mark Milligan he got both Spark and Spike.
Patrolling a new look three man rearguard, Sydney FCs frequent-flyer was everywhere, covering the right whenever Brett Emerton ventured forward, covering the left when Beauchamp was dragged wide and making countless last-ditched tackles as the pressure mounted in the second period. Demonstrating the desperation that has been absent on matchdays 1 and 2, it is easy to see why he is fast becoming a main man is whatever team he suits up form, be it FC or the Olyroos. On this evidence, you could almost add the Socceroos.
If Sukha was the man of the match, Milligan wasn't far behind, and even if the petulant Lucas Neill comes back for the quarter final on Saturday, Milligan must be retained.
Here he was part of a new-look 3-4-1-2, which included FC teammate David Carney, on the left side of midfield, and John Aloisi up front. It meant a move for Luke Wilkshire to the right side of midfield, where he looked far more comfortable, controlling both Sukee Suksomkit and Nataporn Phanrit.
Mark Bresciano, perhaps lucky to survive the chop, was shifted into the hole behind the front-two, where he was much more involved. Execution could have been better, again. Harry Kewell was saved for later.
Only a few seconds in it was plainly obvious that the Aussies, stung by the criticism, most of it valid, were up for this one. The tackles were flying in, the energy great.
Jason Culina was biting in everywhere, trying to out-buzz the Thai buzzers. He was excellent, not far behind Milligan in his will to win.
Nearby Grella was struggling to control the game, but never gave up.
For once the set-piece delivery looked better, with Carney providing a bit of variety on the left-peg. Recognising that they had a real opportunity to capitalise on their aerial superiority, the Roos are reported to have practiced the set-piece that broke the deadlock long and hard. Here was the reward. Good work Arnold, good delivery from Wilkshire and great hunger from Beauchamp.
The Socceroos finally had the edge, one they appeared desperate not to relinquish, despite the odd nervy moment from Mark Schwarzer and the workrate of the tireless Kiatisuk Senamuang.
Even the introduction of goal-sneak Pipat Thonkanya with half an hour left failed to level things up. He fluffed his one genuine chance.
It was left to the Socceroos star benchies, Kewell and Cahill, to make a telling impact, almost a replica of what we saw in Singapore. Bravo Arnold for finally keeping them in reserve.
Cahill was particularly influential on this night, laying on all three late goals, the first two with crosses for Viduka, the last with an early ball into the path of the fresh Kewell, who finished with aplomb.
The only mystery after that is why Brett Holman was introduced ahead of Nick Carle, who is still waiting for his first minute at this cup, despite the poor form of those ahead of him.
When the Socceroos were under intense pressure throughout the second half, the game was crying out for someone with the ability to keep the ball.
The performance will need to improve for Japan, but after what has gone on before, it's just great to be through.