Melbourne football fans paid tribute to Australia’s Socceroos as over 70,000 witnessed a gritty come-from-behind 2-1 win over Japan.
Though the match was effectively a dead rubber as both sides have qualified for the 2010 World Cup, Melbourne’s sports-mad public lapped up the opportunity to see their Aussie hero’s up close against the regional power-house ahead of their imminent South African odyssey.
Tim Cahill proved to be the match winner scoring twice in the second half from set-pieces as he once more proved Japan’s bane.
He scored two goals when the two sides met on a balmy summer’s day in Kaiserslaughtern, giving the roos an unlikely win at the 2006 World Cup.
Towering center back Markus Tanaka had given Japan a thoroughly deserved 40th minute lead with a powerful header that gave Roo’s keeper Mark Schwarzer no chance.
Japan threatened for most of the first half, but they failed to produce the necessary clear-cut opportunities, save for the goal.
Both sides were well below full strength, giving the occasion the air of a friendly match, rather than a cut-throat World Cup Qualifier.
Australia boss Pim Verbeek used the occasion to try out several new faces, in the absence of stars such as Harry Kewell. Rhys Williams and Shane Stefanuto looked out of their depth in their left and right back positions, and it seemed to be a matter when, and not if, Japan would score.
Williams was regularly outplayed by Japan’s creative and attacking forwards. He gave away the corner that led to Japan’s goal and was lucky that wayward finishing did not give the visitors their second in the 57th minute.
But minutes later, Australia was on level terms, as Cahill opportunistically pounced on a bobbing ball in the heart of the Japanese defence.
Midfielder Vince Grella was the provider, with his long ball from a free kick in Australia’s attacking half.
Japan could have retaken the lead four minutes later, but Aussie hearts soon settled after Daisukei Matsui could only scuff his shot from just three meters out of goal.
14 minutes from time, Cahill got his, and Australia’s second goal. Nick Carle whipped in a cross from yet another set-piece free kick. Though the replay indicated that a Japanese defender may have got the decisive touch, the goal was credited to the Everton man who celebrated in earnest.
Verbeek used the occasion to play defensive football, using Josh Kennedy as a lone striker, though he seemed to cover as much ground in midfield than up forward. Playing a 4-2-3-1 formation, Verbeek is seemingly preparing the Socceroos for life without the football.
The reality is that Australia could struggle when it meets some mid to upper caliber sides at the World Cup.
Whilst Japan is undoubtedly a regional power and a perennial World Cup starter, they are generally weak opponents relative to the traditionally stronger European and South American sides that will lie in wait as South Africa beckons.
Australia’s discipline without the ball and ability to bounce back from deficits will be needed, as it was at the MCG on Wednesday.
Cahill has undoubtedly replaced Kewell as Australia’s x-factor, and the Socceroos will need him to be fit and firing when South Africa is around the corner.