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Mar 26, 2013

Australia's defence exposed by Oman

Australia's World Cup qualification hopes appeared in peril for much of their clash in Sydney with Oman. A 2-2 draw ultimately kept them in contention, but concurrently demonstrated the defensive frailties which could see their dreams of heading to Brazil in 2014 unravel.

Aston Villa's Brett Holman salvaged a draw with a fine strike in the dying stages, but it was hardly the result the Socceroos needed - particularly at home.

Midweek, stand-in captain Mark Schwarzer revealed his concern that "anything less than three points would be a disaster". That may have been hyperbole used to rouse his team-mates, but Australia's back four certainly tested the theory.

To this point, Australia had experienced an inconsistent path on the road to qualification. The ageing stars of Holger Osieck's squads had, before this match, fallen well off the pace set by Japan, leaving the Socceroos to play for second spot in Group B along with Iraq, Jordan and their opponents Oman.

The two sides previously met in the third round of the qualification process, with the Socceroos coming out on top 3-0 at home in October 2011, before going down 1-0 in Muscat one month later. A fourth-round encounter followed last June, where the teams played out a cagey 0-0 draw. That match, incidentally, was the last time Harry Kewell was seen on a football pitch.

Many Australian fans feared the worst for their qualification hopes when the side slipped to a 2-1 loss away to Jordan in October, before the men in green and gold rallied to reverse that scoreline in Doha when faced with Iraq. Two late strikes from Tim Cahill and Archie Thompson steered Australia back on course that day, but that they needed to do so in such dramatic fashion continued to create some worry lines on those looking on Down Under.

Most troublesome for Osieck's men has been the attacking third, where 34-year-old Thompson was the only player to have scored more than one goal in the fourth round. Indeed, Cahill and Luke Wilkshire (penalty) were the only other players to have scored in this phase of qualification. Japan, meanwhile, had scored 13 times, thanks largely to the brilliance of Keisuke Honda.

But it was their defence that captured most interest in the lead-up to this fixture, with Robert Cornthwaite and Michael Thwaite selected as an unlikely centre-back pairing. The suspension of skipper Lucas Neill was always going to pose a question of Australia's depth at the back, yet the appearance of the 'Double Thwaite's' added little confidence to the masses.

Indeed the defence was to be the key talking point of the opening exchanges with Thwaite being caught on his heels as Abdul Aziz slipped past him to score the opener beyond a stranded Schwarzer in the sixth minute.

A dream start for Oman coach Paul Le Guen, with the Socceroos' nerves in tatters for the ensuing 10 minutes, before they settled and regained a foothold in the game. Crystal Palace man Mile Jedinak saw a header flash past the post before his midfield partner James Holland had his shot deflected wide.

Oman sat predictably deep from then on, but another lapse at the start of the second half turned put an already disappointing night on the brink of catastrophe as Raed Saleh's harmless cross was turned into his own net by Jedinak.

However, Tim Cahill's headed goal from a corner moments later returned hope to the Socceroos' cause and the comeback was almost competed when Wilkshire's stinging low drive took a wicked deflection and spun away from goal via the crossbar and the post.

But it followed soon after. Holman, who has struggled for game time at Villa of late, then rewarded the Socceroos' endeavour with a blistering 25-yard strike five minutes from time. Masking, ever so briefly, the issues troubling Osieck's charges.

The coach himself did his best to shield his new-look back four after the final whistle, but his response when probed lacked conviction.

"They've never played together in a competition like this and you could see they need a little bit more time," Osieck explained. "They just had recently some playing time in friendly games, and this is a different ball game.

"I don't want to have a go at them because it's my responsibility because I thought they were the right players for that position. On the other hand I think you have to show a little bit of consideration to that. So, again, if you look at our line-up, in this format, they've never ever played together for whatever reason and to really get your feet on the ground quickly is not always easy."

In truth, Australia generally dominated proceedings. Possession, corners won and shots on goal were all heavily in favour of the home side. Unfortunately, these statistics matter not when it comes to progressing to the World Cup. Something Osieck's side are now only too aware of.

It's not the end of the road for the Socceroos, but the result leaves them in a desperate search for a result away to Japan next match in June. If they don't tighten up at the back for that game, hopes of another World Cup campaign could be short-lived.

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