|By WILLIAM VALLELY
Australia have finished second in the group stages of the AFC Under-16 Championship 2012 after losing 3-2 to Iraq on Wednesday in a penalty shootout in Tehran, leaving them a tricky quarter-final against home nation Iran on Sunday.
In a bizarre situation after a goalless game, penalties were needed to determine who would top the group as both sides were level on points, goals scored, and goals conceded before the final Group B match.
In a dramatic penalty shoot-out, Iraq raced to an early 2-1 lead, but Joeys' championship debutant goalkeeper Jordan Thurtell made an impressive save to his right to keep his side in the hunt.
Todd Norris brought the Joeys back to parity at 2-2 with a calm finish, sending Iraq goalkeeper Hayder Mohammed Fiasal the wrong way.
But Mahdi Al-Korji kept his nerve to seal a 3-2 victory and top place in the group for his side.
Joeys head coach Alistair Edwards made a string of changes to the side that beat Oman in Kuwait on Monday, handing debuts to goalkeeper Thurtell, defender Matthew Schmidt and midfielder Matthew Ntoumenopoulos.
Iraq rested six players from the team that started the previous group game against Thailand on Monday, but they still managed to dominate possession and chances in a relatively mundane first half.
Iraq continued to dominate after the break but could not make the most of their opportunities, thanks largely to some impressive stops from goalkeeper Thurtell.
Coach Alistair Edwards explained his decision to rest key players for the final group game: "With an eye on having players fresh for the quarter-final we made eight changes from the starting XIs of the previous two game against Thailand and Oman, the Iraqis rested six starting players," Edwards said via statement.
Despite the penalty shoot-out defeat, Edwards was upbeat about his side's performance throughout the group-stages and their prospects for the latter stages of the tournament: "We have gone through the groups stages undefeated and today we kept another clean sheet, the only goal we have conceded so far in the tournament being a penalty," he said.
"The first two games and the latter stages of today's game have been excellent in terms of performance and we are all very much looking forward to what will be an exciting quarter-final game against Iran."