Australia have all but qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa after beating an impressive Uzbekistan 2-0 in their Asian Group 1 World Cup qualifier in Sydney this evening.
Mirdjalal Kasimov’s Uzbek outfit backed up admirably from their 4-0 thrashing of Qatar at the weekend, perhaps unfortunate to be flying out of Australia with nothing to show from a cultured display.
The visitors outplayed their opponents and should have taken the lead in the first half, before goals from substitute Josh Kennedy and a penalty by Galatasaray star Harry Kewell secured a victory for Australia during an improved second half display against a conspicuously fatigued Uzbekistan.
A draw in the group's soon-to-be-played other match between Bahrain and Qatar would officially confirm Australia as the first nation to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
The Australians started brightly with Scott McDonald capitalising on a loose ball in the box, only to see his weak effort roll into the arms of goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov after just four minutes.
It was the Uzbeks though who had two wonderful chances to open the scoring in the next two minutes; the ball was cut back from the byline but desperately blocked in front of goal by a crowd of Australian bodies following a Beauchamp mistake, before a flat-footed Lucas Neill allowed Farhod Tadjiyev into the area.
Hat-trick hero at the weekend against Qatar, the young striker perhaps took his shot too early and only saw it flash wide of Schwarzer’s far post.
What followed was a concerted period of possession from the Australians, the type of which has been rare in recent qualifiers away from home.
However, Pim Verbeek’s side were lacking drive in wide areas, despite conspicuously looking to spread play, all too often forced to play square before finding no way through an organised Uzbekistan back line.
By contrast, Mirdjalal Kasimov’s outfit were stretching the Australians, their passing in the opposition’s half incisive and their ball movement quick.
They too were becoming susceptible to defensive errors in wet conditions in Sydney and they should have been punished on 15 minutes.
Celtic striker McDonald closed down his man well before slipping Mark Bresciano in-field, the Serie A-based midfielder side-stepping his man brilliantly but hitting his effort straight at Nesterov from inside the area.
It was the last genuine chance of the half for the home side, whose inability to play through more central areas rendered them predictable and easily handled.
With neither of the full-back pairing of Scott Chipperfield and Luke Wilkshire particularly willing to hit the by-line and overlap, Uzbekistan were allowed to focus their play down central areas, troubling an at-times immobile pairing of Neill and Beauchamp.
The Australians did manage a harmless effort before half time, Jason Culina uncharacteristically wasteful in volleying straight at Nesterov from long distance.
Despite a flat first half performance, Pim Verbeek sent out the same starting eleven to restart the match, with Kasimov expectedly doing the same after a cultured display from his team.
Indeed, they missed a wonderful chance to take a deserved lead on 53 minutes when the superb Tadjiev showed tremendous strength to hold the ball up in the area, Sakhob Jurayev hammering the ball just past the left post with Schwarzer statuesque.
That moment seemed to spark the Australians into life, as they increased the tempo of their passing and began pressing the Uzbeks in numbers.
Perhaps feeling the physical effects of having just arrived in the country following a 4-0 win in Tashkent at the weekend, the visitors visibly began to tire, sit deep and lose their attacking output when Tadjiev was replaced on 58 minutes.
The impressive target man was taken off with a hamstring strain on Saturday, though his opponent Harry Kewell began to live up to his fully-fit status with a strong second half display.
On 59 minutes his determined work on the left flank saw the ball eventually rolled into the path of Jason Culina, whose wonderful swerving effort from outside the box was tipped over the bar athletically by Nesterov.
With a host of dangerous set-pieces being either glanced wide or hacked clear by an increasingly desperate Uzbek outfit, the Socceroos began to galvanise a strong crowd of 57,292.
Verbeek responded to his side’s dominance with the introduction of out-of-favour Kalsruhe striker Joshua Kennedy for the hard-working McDonald on the hour mark; a decision rewarded only minutes later.
In a sharp move, Bresciano superbly beat Jurayev down the right flank in one swift movement before playing an early ball into Kennedy, the towering forward glancing a superb header in at the near post from some distance.
Five minutes later and with momentum on their side, Australia doubled their lead after being rewarded a penalty by United Arab of Emirates referee Ali Hamad Albadwani.
Richard Garcia was adjudged to have been brought down off the ball by Hayrulla Karimov, the defender injured and then substituted as a result of the clash.
At the same end of the ground from which John Aloisi scored the now famous penalty that took Australia to the Word Cup in 2006, Kewell stepped up to calmly slot the ball into the bottom right hand corner of the net and virtually confirm a victory and qualification for next year’s World Cup.
The Socceroos may have their place in South Africa confirmed if Bahrain and Qatar in their match later this morning and, if not, will need only a point from their remaining two clashes at home to Bahrain and Japan.
Uzbekistan, meanwhile, have a tough task to secure third place and a play-off passage; they host Japan and travel to Bahrain in June.
Australia 2 (Kennedy 66’, Kewell 73’)
Australia: Schwarzer, Neill, Culina, Beauchamp, Wilkshire, Kewell (75’ Holman), Chipperfield, Garcia, Valeri (81’ Jedinak), McDonald (60’ Kennedy), Bresciano
Uzbekistan: Nesterov, Gafurov, Karimov (75’ Tuhutahujaev), Ibragimov (65’ Haydarov), Ismailov, Hasanov, Djeparov, Ahmedov, Tadjiyev (58’ Soliev), Jurayev, Kapadze
Chris Paraskevas, Goal.com