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Sep 12, 2012

Stumbling Australia in need of inspiration

One of the reasons Australia left Oceania to join Asia in 2006 was a desire to get away from a World Cup route that included a do-or-die play-off against a team from another continent, usually South America.

It would be a little ironic if the same thing were to happen ahead of the 2014 World Cup - because, if the Socceroos don't buck their ideas up soon, that do-or-die play-off could be the only option remaining.

A 2-1 defeat in Jordan on Tuesday has left Holger Osieck's men with a meagre two points from their opening three games. Japan have all but taken top spot in Group B in the final round of qualification, leaving Australia to fight it out with Jordan, Iraq and Oman for the second automatic spot. Coming third means play-offs, and fourth... well, nobody is thinking about that just yet.

The message is still "don't panic", but this Dad's Army of veterans from the successful campaign of 2006 is running out of room to manoeuvre.

Cool heads point out that three of the last four games are at home and, with other teams taking points from each other - and having them taken from them by Japan - second place is still only two points away. All true, but there can be no more slip-ups.

Amman was no abomination: the defeat was deserved. Goals from Hassan Abdel Fattah and Amer Deeb did not come against the run of play, and there could have been more to delight a passionate home crowd.

Previous coach Pim Verbeek took the Socceroos through qualification for the 2010 World Cup with a minimum of fuss, albeit with - in the minds of many - a minimum of aesthetics.

The Dutchman's style may have not been universally admired, but his team had the ability, in Asia at least, to snatch a win even when not playing well. It is a knack that the 2012 version, one hardly playing beautiful football itself, seems to have lost.

Even Osieck professed to be perplexed as to why his team reverted to launching long balls so early in the match and admitted that the passing was a disaster against a team desperate to recover from a 6-0 loss in Japan in June. That thrashing was something of an anomaly, coming as it did only four days after a home game against Iraq and just two days after an exhausted team arrived in Tokyo.

For Jordan, a first win in the final stage and a jump from fifth to second has produced a feel-good factor that will increase even more if Adnan Hamad can lead the team to victory in Oman next month. At the same time, Australia will be back in the Middle East for a game against Iraq in Doha. It is going to be a big one.

Such pressure is off Japan, who are now six points clear of second and eight above Australia after a 1-0 win over Iraq in Saitama. It is just a question of when, not if, Alberto Zaccheroni's men confirm their spot in South America.

It was not a vintage performance from the hosts, who struggled at times against an Iraqi team that had chances. Hammadi Ahmed missed a glorious opportunity to put the 2007 Asian champions ahead. Soon afterwards, Ryoichi Maeda headed the 2011 continental winners into the lead.

It was all a little low-key, reflected in the fact that, in some match reports, Maeda's name was mentioned below that of Shinji Kagawa. The Manchester United man did not even play, a back injury picked up in training meaning that he sat and watched the action.

"We did our job tonight," was how coach Alberto Zaccheroni summed it all up. The Italian can start planning for 2014, if he hadn't already. "We want to get our ticket to Brazil as soon as possible, and now we have to start thinking about the next game," he said. If things go their way, that could be the match that confirms the inevitable.

Group A: Battle is brewing

Inevitable is not a word in use in Group A. Three teams have four points, and it is shaping up to be quite a battle. South Korea extended their lead at the top to three points after a hard-fought 2-2 draw in Uzbekistan. It was a decent result, even if the performance left something to be desired. An inability to keep the ball - albeit on a poor surface - and to defend set pieces cost the Taeguk Warriors the only perfect record in the stage.

Before the game, Swansea City's Ki Sung-yeung talked of how Uzbekistan were scared of Korea given past results between the two nations. Perhaps he decided to give them a helping hand, or head, as he nodded a 16th minute corner into his own net. Korea fought back, getting themselves into a 2-1 lead but, once again, were caught out by a corner.

Before the stage started, Uzbekistan were regarded as a decent bet to finish second, but they are still looking for their first win. The White Wolves can at least console themselves with the fact that they are still just two points off second place, but there are some difficult away trips to come.

Beirut are earning that label for themselves. Lebanon defeated South Korea in the previous round in November and did the same to Iran on Tuesday, winning 1-0. Iran coach Carlos Queiroz told ESPN last week that he didn't think Lebanon could qualify but were able to cause problems for others.

Iran helped to confirm the latter part of that statement and a few - if not yet too many - will be starting to doubt the first part. Lebanon are giving it a good go.

If they had more players with the class of Rodi Antar, they'd make it. The midfielder headed home Mohammad Haidar's 28th minute free-kick. After that, most of the plaudits belonged to the goalkeeper, Abbas Hassan, who kept out everything Iran threw at him. The Swedish-based shot-stopper, who has not convinced for the national team since making his debut earlier this year, earned high praise from Queiroz.

"We did enough and created enough not to lose - I think a national hero was born today. For me the score was Abbas Hassan 1 Iran 0," he said. The loss puts pressure on Queiroz and a team that has scored just once in three games so far.

Pressure is to be expected in the final round of qualification for the World Cup - but some of the results so far have been anything but expected.

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