Goal.com Australia's chief editor Paddy Higgs reflects on another worthy instalment in the battle between the Socceroos and the Samurai Blue to be Asia's No.1 nation
By Paddy Higgs | Goal.com Australia Chief Editor
"We don't believe we are second best," Neill had told reporters on Monday when asked what he made of forthcoming opponents Japan moving above Australia in Fifa's rankings, thus making the Samurai Blue the No.1 team in Asia. "We don't worry too much about the rankings – they are on paper and we play on grass."
The duel conditions set, then, the Socceroos' stance would not have been altered much by the time the final whistle ended Tuesday's 1-1 white-knuckle draw. Nor would it be presumptuous to believe that Japan, too, would depart Brisbane firmly believing they deserve their status as the confederation's No.1 team.
A duel this may have been, but this was no contest at 10 paces. It was instead a collision of two teams, as different in playing styles as cultures.
Japan went into the match a blue avalanche of momentum, having scored nine goals in winning their opening two qualifiers to take an early hold of Group B. In contrast, the Socceroos had sweated their way to a 0-0 draw in Muscat against Oman and returned home to allegations that age may have finally caught up with Holger Osieck's squad.
With the 2011 Asian Cup loss perhaps still fresh in the mind and having ceded their crown as the confederation's top nation, Australia turned to a man who had twice proved the rust in the Samurai Blue's scabbard - in the 2006 World Cup and in qualifying for the 2010 tournament - in Tim Cahill. He turned back the clock with an all-action performance, particularly in the first half when he caused flashes of chaos in the penalty area.
Japan's quality came from Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, who linked up with twin-like perception to provide most of the game's most eye-pleasing moves.
But - perhaps fittingly, given the industrial standard of the pitch - Japan were also happy to get stuck in when needed, with Yuzo Kurihara characterising just what the occasion meant for both sides in his desperate clearance while prone when Australia seemed certain to score in the 19th minute.
Kurihara was to be Japan's lone goalscorer in the second half, but followed Australia substitute Mark Milligan in later being sent off as Saudi Arabian referee Khalil Al Ghamdi seemed intent to cast himself in a lead role in the drama.
The true character of both sides seem to emerge after Milligan's questionable second yellow card in the 55th minute, with Japan turning on their style and Australia digging in resolutely to protect Mark Schwarzer's goal.
The Samurai Blue did break through with Kurihara's goal, but another controversial decision from Al Ghamdi - this time judging Alex Brosque to be held at an Australia corner by Atsuto Uchida, with Luke Wilkshire converting the resulting penalty - ensured the nations inevitably could not be split.
By virtue of their world ranking and 2011 Asian Cup trophy, Japan still holds the wood over the Socceroos. But world football ebbs and flows like any sport, and it is unlikely the argument will ever be truly settled.
That matters little, as it is what lies between - a rivalry building by the encounter - that keeps us all intrigued.