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Australia are on the verge of qualifying for next year’s World Cup finals after a 2-0 victory over Uzbekistan in their Asian group qualifier here on Wednesday.
The Socceroos, on top of their group with 13 points ahead of Japan on 11, could become the first team to qualify for South Africa if Bahrain and Qatar, both on four points, draw their match in Manama later on Wednesday.
Australia’s goals were a long time coming after a flat first half in which the Uzbeks looked more dangerous on the counter-attack and through the free-kicks of skipper Server Djeparov.
But goals from substitute striker Josh Kennedy and a penalty from Harry Kewell seven minutes apart in the second half kept Australia unbeaten after five games and five clean sheets.
The Uzbeks faded from the tiring effects of their long flight and short preparation after last Saturday’s 4-0 home win over Qatar had revived their qualification hopes.
“I’m very happy with the 2-0 win. It was a very difficult first half and Uzbekistan had a lot of confidence from last Saturday’s game,” Australian coach Pim Verbeek said.
“They started better in the first 10 to 15 minutes and we, for whatever reason, were nervous.
They knew how much was at stake.
“But in the second half we played faster, higher ball speed, we created more chances and we didn’t give them any chance to get in and around our penalty box.”
The Socceroos have three qualifiers remaining in June against Qatar in Doha and home games against Bahrain and Japan.
Uzbekistan almost had a dream start when striker Farhod Tadjivev, the hat-trick hero in their win over Qatar, chased down a through ball in the ninth minute, but his shot went across goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer and wide of the far post.
But Australia had an even better scoring chance six minutes later when Mark Bresciano was put on goal by Scott McDonald only to shoot straight at goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov.
The Australians had little else to show for their slow buildups and lone striker McDonald was often isolated by the taller Uzbek defence.
Australia continued to be frustrated early in the second half and Verbeek reacted by bringing on giant striker Kennedy for McDonald.
Australia’s breakthrough came six minutes after his introduction as the towering Karlsruhe striker headed home a Bresciano cross.
It was Kennedy’s sixth goal in 12 appearances for his country.
The match swung decisively towards the home side when Hull City’s Richard Garica was brought down in the box by defender Hayrulla Karimov and UAE referee Ali Hamad Albadwawi pointed to the penalty spot.
Galatasaray’s Kewell converted for 2-0 after 73 minutes and was substituted soon after. It was Kewell’s 13th goal in 39 internationals.
Uzbekistan had the ball in the net deep in injury time but substitute Anvarjon Soliev’s goal was disallowed for offside after Schwarzer had made a great reflex save from Djeparov’s shot.
“We expected them to be tired and exhausted in the second half after our long flight to Australia and there was only four days between match days,” Uzbek coach Mirdjalal Kasimov said.
“We instructed our players to keep possession and not to give the ball away, but Australia played very well as a team.”
Kasimov admitted his side had missed out on the top two places in the group with the aim now to play for the third place play-off spot against Oceania’s New Zealand.—Sapa-AFP
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