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Hong Kong 0-1 Australia: Socceroos scrape by
Australia's performance may have been affected by the awful standard of the pitch, but the Socceroos will still have plenty of critics for a stilted and disjointed showing
|By DAMIEN SOUNESS
Australia opened their East Asian Cup qualifying campaign with a shaky 1-0 win over minnows Hong Kong in Hong Kong on Monday.
The Socceroos, ranked 139 places above their opponents, were unable to break the deadlock until the 84th minute, when captain Brett Emerton found the net with a brilliant finish.
Hong Kong did their best to frustrate an inexperienced Australia XI and far exceeded expectations in front of a vocal home crowd with a calm and disciplined approach on a dreadful pitch at Mong Kok Stadium.
The hosts had several opportunities to take the lead, but failed to find a way past Socceroos goalkeeper Eugene Galekovic, who made a number of telling saves to keep Australia in the contest.
The Socceroos continued to attack and were rewarded in the dying stages when Emerton collected the ball on the edge of the area and took a series of touches before calmly finding the net to end Hong Kong's hopes of a remarkable upset.
Australia, attempting to compete in the tournament for the first time, will face North Korea next up on Wednesday, while Hong Kong play host to Chinese Taipei on Friday.
With a squad of mostly A-League and Asian-based players to choose from, Socceroos coach Holger Osieck handed Galekovic the gloves, while Robert Cornthwaite and Matt Smith started in central defence with Ivan Franjic and Aziz Behich on either side of them.
Michael Thwaite and Mark Milligan were given the defensive midfield duties behind Matt McKay, wearing a helmet to protect his injured cheekbone, Richard Garcia and Emerton, while Archie Thompson was the focal point up front.
The Socceroos controlled the tempo of the contest in the early stages, while Hong Kong, who beat Guam 2-1 in their opening match on Saturday, appeared overawed by their opponents.
But the home side grew in confidence with every minute that the scores remained locked and began to push numbers forward in search of the opening goal.
Australia should have taken the lead towards the end of the opening half when a defensive error gifted McKay possession near the spot, but his shot sailed high over the crossbar.
Thompson had an opportunity of his own minutes later, with Cornthwaite's glancing header whisking past his outstretched boot in front of goal.
Hong Kong had a golden opportunity at the start of the second half, but Galekovic was up to the challenge with a diving save to deny Lo Kwan Yee.
Emerton and Chan Siu Ki were involved in an altercation after Hong Kong's No.7 was booked for a tough challenge on the Socceroos captain, who was then cautioned for his aggressive reaction as tempers began to flare.
Emerton pounced on a wayward pass soon after and played Thompson through on goal, but the Melbourne Victory striker fired his shot directly at Yapp, who made a fine save.
Newcastle Jets forward Adam Taggart made his international debut in place of Thompson before Osieck introduced emerging star Tom Rogic for Garcia with 10 minutes to go.
Rogic almost proved the difference with a powerful shot that was forced over the bar by Yapp as the small Australian contingent in the crowd grew increasingly nervous.
But their fears were allayed when Emerton worked his way around the defence before firing past Yapp to silence the home supporters.
Terry Antonis replaced Sydney FC team-mate Emerton in the dying stages, becoming the 554th player to represent Australia, who held on for the victory.
Australia will take on North Korea before facing Guam and Taiwan, with the winner of the five-team competition to join hosts South Korea, Japan and China at next year's tournament proper.
North Korea thumped Guam 5-0 in the day's other match.
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