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Jan 22, 2011

Socceroos surviving their way to glory

Socceroos old and new combined to give Australia a last-gasp quarter-final winning goal and a taste of revenge over reigning Asian Cup champions Iraq.

Tension reigned as a dramatic match edged towards a penalty shoot-out until metronomic midfielder Matt McKay provided one last opportunity for Harry Kewell to silence the doubters and the striker took the opportunity to prove himself to a whole new generation of Australian fans and headed the killer blow with just three minutes left of extra-time.

Once again, the Socceroos failed to produce the sort of slick, dominant performance their star power on paper might promise, but this functional, effective team are now two matches away from the title and looking as likely as anyone to simply survive their way to glory. No end of credit must go the way of Iraq for stretching and testing the Australians like no other side in Qatar. The holders created a host of chances against the miserly Australian defence and, although they rode their luck at their own end, a ticket at the lottery of spot kicks would not have been an undeserved prize for their endeavours.

Uzbekistan now await a Socceroo team still with just the one goal in the against column, and that has been their key strength in arriving in the last four. Where Japan found a way to outscore the plucky hosts Qatar in another thrilling quarter-final on Friday, the Socceroos instead managed to outlast another opponent thanks to their relentless focus at the back. Mark Schwarzer, the odd one out of Asian Cup goalkeepers, again proved his worth with a string of invaluable contributions before Kewell settled the result.

Like Schwarzer among his custodial peers, this whole match was something of a sore thumb at this tournament. Both teams employed expansive 4-4-2 shapes with an emphasis on high tempo football, direct attacks and aggressive pressing. The technique and guile of most Asian Cup matches was largely absent, in their place the sort of back-and-forth football you might witness in England's Championship. The up-and-at-'em pace was soundtracked by a cracking atmosphere created by travelling Iraqis and underdog-supporting neutrals alike and the resulting encounter, while not always the prettiest, was high on excitement and incident despite what the scoreline might suggest.

Australia were back near full strength with the returns of David Carney and Luke Wilkshire from injury, although Carl Valeri continued to deputise for Jason Culina and McKay covered for suspended Brett Emerton, shifting to left midfield as Brett Holman took Emerton's place on the right. The Aussies continued with their predictable but effective tactic of spreading the ball wide and looking for Tim Cahill and Kewell with diagonal crosses from deep positions. Holman cut in from the right to drift behind the strikers, and McKay, a natural central player, tucked in narrow on the other flank, creating space for full-backs Wilkshire and Carney to advance before delivering their searching high balls.

Iraq, in contrast, looked to involve strikers Younus Mahmood and Imad Mohammed early before building an attack in the final third if possession could be secured. Importantly, Iraq matched up man for man on their opponents and pressured the ball-player at every opportunity. Due to Australia's stretched formation and technical deficiencies, the Socceroos struggled to link passing moves together on a consistent basis. Nonetheless, Australia created the best opportunities of the first half, with only the determined defending of impressive centre back Samal Saeed and some wayward finishing from McKay, twice, and Kewell, keeping the scores level at the first break.

Sasa Ognenovski had his best match in the green and gold since belatedly earning his international chance, and the defender's aerial threat at set pieces became a serious factor as the match wore on. He and Cahill each bombarded Mohammed Kassid's goal, although Saeed cleverly defused a number of chances by conceding the first contact to Australia's towering forces and instead positioning himself in the trajectory of the header.

Australia coach Holger Osieck has not introduced young blood into his ageing team, but they do have new blood in the form of late bloomers McKay, Ognenovski and Mile Jedinak. No longer seeing themselves as mere back-ups, this collection of current and former A-League stars have grown in confidence and they influenced this match as much as their more celebrated colleagues. Jedinak stung Kassid's palms with an arrow-like left-footed drive as Australia enjoyed a period of dominance in the middle part of the second half. Then, as Wolfgang Sidka injected his substitutions, Iraq got on top and McKay motored back to make two vital interventions and keep Australia's clean sheet intact at 90 minutes.

Ognenovski looked to have provided the unlikeliest of winners with a bicycle kick headed for the top corner in the early part of extra time, but Jedinak frustratingly headed it over. It didn't matter for the Socceroos, though, as the tiring Iraqis left space for McKay to make progress on the left before picking out the onrushing Kewell with a slicing heat-seeker of a cross. Kewell could have been criticised before that moment for following up his brilliant goal in the rout of India with wasteful finishing in more finely poised matches, so he will be delighted to have made the headline-grabbing contribution expected of him by fans and critics alike.

And so the Socceroos reached their first Asian Cup semi-final at the second attempt, despite their every department being tested by a feisty rival. It's hard to tell whether Osieck is unhappy with the manner his results are being achieved, or if he is satisfied to rely on Schwarzer to play a significant role in these narrow victories. Either way, the Socceroos might just find themselves crowned champions before the coach decides.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Sasa Ognenovski. The AFC Player of the Year defended stoutly, throwing himself into challenges across land and air to deny Iraq a sight on goal. The less quick and nimble opponents suited the imposing defender well, but it was in the attacking penalty area he made a major impact. His aerial threat provided Australia's most likely avenue to goal and a surprising acrobatic overhead kick could have been a famous winner if Jedinak hadn't accidentally intervened. An influential performance at both ends of the pitch from a player who barely put a foot wrong.

AUSTRALIA VERDICT: Although spot kicks weren't required, this was still a shoot-out of sorts as chances were traded at both ends in an open, flowing affair. That was always likely to suit the Aussies with the ample threat of Kewell and Cahill up front. It might have taken much longer than expected, but that differential eventually proved decisive. The inclusion of McKay provided a better balance across midfield and the Australians held firm as a team while winning their individual battles. Not quite comfortable, not quite clinical, but another unbreakable victory for this team.

IRAQ VERDICT: Sidka's 4-4-2 pitched his players man-for-man against the Australians and, although they held their own, too few won their individual battles. Key midfielder Nashat Akram was booked in the first minute and failed to leave his mark on the match. Iraq were energetic and positive, giving themselves every chance of nicking a result, but ultimately they blinked first in the pursuit of a clean sheet and Kewell punished the worst of their rare defensive lapses of the match.

BATTLE OF THE BENCHES: As with any 120-minute match, the coaches' use of their substitutions provided an interested subplot to the on-field action. Sidka played his hand first, sending in Mustafa Kareem after an hour and emptying his bench by the 86th minute. He reaped the rewards with a 15-minute period of domination but Australia survived, leaving Osieck's subs - starting with Scott McDonald's introduction in the 90th minute - to help wrest back momentum in extra-time.

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