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Jun 4, 2013

Defence and Neill superb for Socceroos

Goals win you games. Defence wins you championships.

Or perhaps in this case, World Cup qualification.

The Socceroos could have had one hand on their ticket to Brazil were it not for Matt McKay's late handball to concede a penalty and Japan's late equaliser.

But they still have it entirely in their control to reach a third consecutive World Cup finals.

While Oman's 1-0 win over Iraq early Wednesday morning (AEST) still leaves the Socceroos third in their group, Australia have a game in hand, and two home matches to shore up a top two spot.

Regardless of current Group B position, the equation is simple.

Beat Jordan at Melbourne's Etihad Stadium on June 11 and Iraq in Sydney on June 18, and a third successive World Cup finals appearance beckons for Australia.

On their performance in the intimidating cauldron of Saitama Stadium against a star-studded Japan, the Socceroos are capable of getting there.

And if they do, they can thank their defence for kick-starting their spluttering campaign.

Goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer was immense. Rising star Tommy Oar got the Socceroos' goal. Both deserve the headlines and kudos.

But for many reasons, skipper Lucas Neill deserved most credit. For all the great service he has given Australia, this was one of his finest shifts in green and gold.

Neill may be 35, clubless, lacking match fitness and a yard slower than in his greatest performance at the 2006 World Cup.

But his leadership and on-field smarts were critical in getting Australia rolling after a tough first 15 minutes under the Japanese pump.

Neill sorted out Australia's defensive positioning, helping lay a buffer between the back-four and the dangerous Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda.

For every one of the 90 minutes, he put himself exactly where he needed to be to read the play, and break it down as Japan powered forward. He is, without doubt, a leader of the highest calibre.

Neill teamed superbly with Sasa Ognenovski in the heart of defence. With McKay and Luke Wilkshire taking their cues, the back-four produced as solid a performance as seen under Holger Osieck's reign.

Special mention to Osieck too. He entered the match a coach under pressure. Rightly so, considering the bewildering team selection and poor performance against Oman.

But his gameplan was near-perfect, his players carried it out with discipline and determination, and he deserves massive credit for that.

It could have been a great night for Australia. Instead, it was merely a good one.

But it keeps the maths basic. Two games, two wins, no headaches.

Anything less will need favours from elsewhere, and even more nerves of steel than shown by the Socceroos' defence in Saitama.

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