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Jan 18, 2011

Jedinak once again the key man

Once again, Australia fell back on their superior mental resilience and outstanding goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer to hold on in a match that they were expected to comfortably dominate. Bahrain mounted a stirring fightback in the second half of their Asian Cup Group C finale but they eventually fizzled out, leaving Mile Jedinak's first-half super-strike as the difference between the two teams at a rain-soaked Al Sadd Stadium.

The Socceroos progress as group leaders with this 1-0 win ahead of South Korea and, although they have only hit the heights in fits and starts so far, it is the '1' in the goals against column that is key to Australia's success. Still, after Korea's 4-1 win over India, Australia manager Holger Osieck can point to the fact that his was the only team not to concede a goal against the group's whipping boys.

The critics will claim Australia have flattered to deceive so far in Qatar, the optimists will state that results, not performances, win tournaments. Schwarzer's routine heroics may be papering over some cracks in this Australian team but they remain incredibly difficult to beat. Only three matches now stand between them and the title and there is every chance they could simply grind their way to their first Asian championship.

Bahrain head home gallant in defeat as a clear third to South Korea and Australia. The tiny nation's team are over-performers on the international arena and, based on their population and sporting pedigree, they should not be running the Socceroos as close as they did on a rare wet Tuesday evening in Doha. But they lacked the killer instinct and the mental perseverance to earn what would not have been an undeserved victory and an extended stay in the tournament.

Australia were visibly weakened by the loss of their three injured players Jason Culina, Luke Wilkshire and David Carney and the needless suspension of Brett Emerton for their quarter-final will further test their depth, which is not a strong point of this Aussie squad. Brisbane Roar midfielder Matt McKay was drafted in for Carney at left-back and it was a baptism of fire for a player out of position, if not quite out of his depth. The A-League man was ruthlessly targeted by the Bahrainis, who used dangerous attacker Ismaeel Abdulatif in a right forward position in a lopsided 4-5-1.

It looked as though McKay's dream opportunity might turn into a nightmare as Ismaeel and company exploited his suspect positioning on a string of occasions early on. The case for McKay's defence would point to both a lack of cover from left-midfielder Brett Holman, who likes to cut inside off his wing, and an alarming number of careless passes by his team-mates as reasons the stand-in defender was so exposed. Australia's passing moves rarely breached the five-pass mark, meaning Bahrain could burst forward dangerously from their defensive starting shape. Abdula Fatadi was drafted in to help power the Bahrain engine room and his penetrative runs forward caused all sorts of problems, most significantly when Ismaeel struck Schwarzer's post from the tightest of angles following a neat move.

It was a positive moment in isolation for Bahrain, but their failure to capitalise on their dominance by taking the chance summed up their wider problems. They had survived golden chances for Australia's Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell, borne out of sloppy turnovers in the greasy conditions, but then their luck ran out. Another Australian foray hit a dead end but this time the ball deflected into Jedinak's path. In a match heavy on A-League flavour, the former Central Coast Mariner blasted a fearsome strike into the bottom corner from 25 yards - as he so often did during his glory days on home soil. Tim Cahill might have picked up a brace against India but Jedinak's key goals against Korea and now Bahrain highlight the contribution he can bring to the team.

The Bahrainis came out swinging after the break and the match entered a new pattern of punch and counterpunch. Worryingly for Australian fans, the Socceroos seemed to be caught in a tactical no-mans-land. They neither sat back to absorb pressure effectively before launching their counter-attacks, nor maintained possession effectively when they did win it, to justify the number of players they left in offensive positions. It seemed certain that something had to give at one end or the other and it would have been in the form of an equaliser had Schwarzer not come out on top of an entertaining personal duel with Ismaeel, from whom he saved a long-range strike and a point-blank effort in quick succession. The striker pushed up next to Jaycee John in a 4-4-2 as the Bahrainis threw caution to the wind, but after another opportunity was halted by a superb covering tackle from Sasa Ognenovski, said wind seemed to exit their sails.

And therein lies a key difference between Australia and the likes of Bahrain. Whether ahead or behind, the Aussies never lose belief, focus or unity. They can outlast many of the teams present in Qatar on mental fortitude alone. Osieck rang the changes in the last 15 minutes as the hope of scoring the two goals required drained out of his opponents. Neil Kilkenny's influential few minutes on the pitch were a positive sign for Australia, even if his introduction for full-back Jade North, who had deputised capably for Wilkshire, saw a reshuffle that included a switch for defensive midfielder Carl Valeri, in for Culina, to an unfamiliar right midfield role.

Not until after Wednesday's matches will it be known who the Socceroos will face in the quarters from Iraq, DPR Korea and UAE, but it will be a relatively favourable draw for Australia regardless. However, while fans back home yearn for a performance to match their lofty world ranking, Osieck will be growing concerned at how he can maintain a functional team with A-League graduates and untested youngsters now plugging some of the leaks in his starting XI.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Mile Jedinak

Schwarzer put in the peerless display that is now expected of him, but Jedinak, while far from flawless, rose above his usual standard to influence the outcome. His goals have provided a timely confidence boost and he could have had a couple more from long-range strikes in the first half. He has struggled against more nimble east Asian opponents but he performed his bread and butter screening duties well, winning possession high up the field. He also kept composed when Bahrain threatened to overrun the midfield in the second half.

AUSTRALIA VERDICT: The slick, cavalier performance still wasn't there, and halfway through the tournament and with tougher tests to come, it most likely never will for the Socceroos. But they still kept a clean sheet. They still got the goal they needed. This was the perfect snapshot of an Australian team that just seems to know how to win. Still, Osieck has some serious concerns as injuries and suspensions to key players stretch his squad.

BAHRAIN VERDICT: There were brilliant individual performances from Ismaeel and Fatadi in particular, while captain Salman Isa was influential down the left flank. In fact a strangely quiet night from skilful striker Jaycee John was perhaps the only underwhelming factor of a good all-round showing against a tough opponent. But John is no scapegoat; players simply lacked the nous and clinical finish to exploit the makeshift Australian defence.

NO SUBSTITUTE? Australia were crying out for a change as Bahrain flooded forward in the second half. Coach Osieck appeared to be in a frantic discussion with the fourth official as he confirmed his first substitute and Scott McDonald eventually came on in the 77th minute, well after Bahrain's momentum had fizzled out. Perhaps only those on the touchline will know for sure, but there might have been a very angry Aussie bench had an equaliser occurred while the red tape was being sorted out pitchside.

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