Josh Kennedy and Harry Kewell scored second-half goals to put Australia on the cusp of securing a World Cup spot with a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan yesterday.
If the Group A match between Bahrain and Qatar were to end in a draw later yesterday at Manama, Australia would be the first team to advance from Asian qualifying to South Africa 2010.
West Ham defender Lucas Neill led the Socceroos in the wet conditions at Stadium Australia and said the win “was massive.”
“It was brilliant. There was a lot of pressure on tonight’s game because we knew we had to win the game and we did and now we could be the first team to qualify for the World Cup,” Neill said. “It was a rusty first half, but [in the] second half, the boys put a lot of pressure on and we got what we deserved.”
Kennedy, a tall forward with German club Karlsruhe, broke the deadlock in the 66th minute, six minutes after coming on to replace Celtic striker Scott McDonald.
The 26-year-old Kennedy directed a header inside the near post from Mark Bresciano’s powerful cross from the right edge of the area.
It was his sixth goal in 12 matches for Australia.
Ex-Liverpool winger Kewell drove a left-foot penalty kick low and hard into the bottom right corner of the net to seal the win in the 73rd after Hull City midfielder Richard Garcia was felled in a rough challenge inside the area.
“About time I did something!” the Galatasary forward joked.
Kewell’s powerful left-foot volley from close range earlier in the half rebounded off the back of a defender.
“It was all about the result tonight. We worked hard together and we got the result we needed,” Kewell said. “We’re not fully there yet. We’re 70 percent there. We’ve got three games left. We’re going to look to win all of them. It was a great header by Josh to get us going.”
It was Australia’s fourth win in five matches in the last full round of Asian qualifying and the fifth straight clean sheet for goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.
The Australians lead the group with 13 points, two clear of Japan.
Uzbekistan, Bahrain and Qatar all went into yesterday’s matches with four points.
Uzbekistan got its campaign back on track with a 4-0 win over Qatar at Tashkent last Saturday night, but now can only challenge for third place in the group, which earns a place in a playoff with the third-place team from Group B.
The Uzbeks were fast and physical in the first half and worked off counter-attacking opportunities. The Australians looked disjointed and didn’t press forward enough.
Bresciano had the best chance, working into a scoring position with a perfect first touch but driving a right-foot shot from eight yards directly at the Uzbek ‘keeper.
“The first half, 50 minutes, they were very dangerous. They made us a little scared,” Australia coach Pim Verbeek said. “We were a little afraid to go forward. We said at half time, ‘Look, you can’t do this. You have to go forward, faster. Put pressure on them.’ It worked. I’m very proud.”
Australia switched from the Oceania to the Asian confederation after the 2006 World Cup, where it reached the second round before a last-minute loss to eventual champion Italy.
That was Australia’s first trip to the World Cup since 1974 and was only achieved after beating Uruguay in an intercontinental qualifier after topping Oceanic qualifying.
■ S KOREA 1, N KOREA 0