Hold on, Brazil. It’s not a done thing. Australia’s hopes of qualifying for next year’s World Cup hang in the balance after the Socceroos snatched a 2-2 draw against Oman on Tuesday night at ANZ Stadium.
However, it could have been a whole lot worse after Australia trailed by two goals shortly after half-time and it looked as though they could fall to their second defeat in the final stage of qualifying.
While Tim Cahill equalised shortly after, blushes were only spared by an 85th-minute screamer from Brett Holman, one that required a slight deflection to go beyond the palms of Ali Al-Habsi, who put in a superb display for the Omanis.
Australia now sit third in their qualifying group after leaders Japan suffered a surprise 2-1 defeat in Jordan.
But the scoreline probably flattered Australia. Though they improved markedly in the second half – inspired by Cahill’s eternal threat from set pieces – the first-half hovered somewhere between woeful and dreadful. The Socceroos lacked structure, fluency and intent, sowing the seeds of an uninspiring display.
The crowd was stunned at the beginning of both halves as Paul Le Guen’s side took an early lead and then doubled their advantage, which was thoroughly deserved.
Thankfully for the majority of the 34,603 on hand, the comeback wasn’t too late, and with three matches left to play, Australia still remain a strong chance of progressing.
Socceroos coach Holger Osieck made a bold decision to select Michael Thwaite and Robbie Cornthwaite in defence, while James Holland was also preferred to Mark Bresciano as Mile Jedinak’s holding midfield partner, perhaps signifying a changing of the guard.
Australia’s plans were thrown into disarray after just six minutes when a clever pass from Amad Al-Hosni put Abdulaziz Al-Muqbali – who made his international debut when Oman last played in Sydney – into the clear.
Coming off a hat-trick in last week’s friendly against Haiti, Al-Muqbali scooted past Thwaite with ease and despite the acute angle, squeezed a shot between Mark Schwarzer’s legs.
Oman are well-known for their time-wasting, and defender Raed Saleh brought jeers from the crowd when he collapsed to the turf in the 12th minute and was then carried off – only to run back onto the field straight away, infuriating Osieck.
Suddenly, the hosts seemed flustered. It wasn’t a situation they expected, especially at home against such a lowly ranked opponent – and perhaps because the last time they played Oman at home, it was so easy.
The energy levels soon lifted. Jedinak fired in a header that was off-target, followed up by Holland’s rasping effort from range that was deflected over. Still, it was far from convincing.
That the best chance of the first stanza came from the head of Brett Holman, who finally drew a save from Al-Habsi after a set-piece, said plenty.
Tactically, Australia were poor. They didn’t think their way through the match. Le Guen was happy to let the Socceroos’ back four have the ball – but cramped the space left for the midfield.
Oman’s formation effectively changed to a 4-5-1 in defence as Al-Muqbali dropped to pressure both Holland and Jedinak, the latter of whom received an almighty critique from Osieck after a misplaced pass.
But Jedinak’s night would go from bad to worse after the break. The Crystal Palace enforcer tried to clear an incoming cross from Raed Ibrahim but only succeeded in clipping the ball past Schwarzer to double the visitors’ advantage.
Australia had to respond urgently now. From a corner two minutes later, Cahill bulleted a header beyond the reached of Al-Habsi from Luke Wilkshire’s corner.
A minute later, Holland was withdrawn and Bresciano brought on as the Socceroos went for the jugular.Australia now looked repeatedly for Cahill to make the difference. He met corner after corner, inducing some superb saves from Al-Habsi. It was a superb individual duel. Honours were ultimately even.
Time looked to be ticking away from the Socceroos but Holman had other ideas, lashing home a superb strike, one that keeps the Samba dream alive.
Australia 2 (Tim Cahill 52, Brett Holman 85) Oman 2 (Abdul Aziz Mubarak 6, Mile Jedinak 49 og) at ANZ Stadium. Crowd: 34,603. Referee: Ravshan Irmatov.