Every four years we prepare ourselves for heartbreak. We watch the Socceroos with hope but know that though we might get close, fate will conspire against us. And so it seemed last night when the final whistle was blown at Telstra Stadium and extra time came to an end. It was going to penalties.

Earlier, it had looked as though Australia would be fouled, niggled and “played” out of the game. The Uruguayans employed their anticipated time-wasting tactics right from the start and it seemed to unsettle Australia. The composed Socceroos from Montevideo were nowhere to be seen. The referee certainly did not help the Australian cause either with his over-officious style.

Thirty minutes into the game, uber-coach Guus Hiddink made the substitution that changed the face of the match, Harry Kewell was brought on and Tony Popovic came off – an attacker for a defender.

Kewell was Australia’s best player on the night. Mark Schwarzer may have been the hero but Kewell changed the match and delivered the beautiful through-ball to Marco Bresciano to score in the 35th minute. It may have been a miskick but it may turn out to be the most important touch of Kewell’s career. Having limped out of the Champions League final to the jeers of Liverpool supporters earlier this year, Harry more than made amends last night as he proved his match-winning ability had simply been hidden in his bun hairstyle for a few years.

Not only did he destroy Carlos Diogo on Australia’s left flank, Harry was popping up in central midfield linking defence to attack – collecting from the defenders and starting Australian attacks which usually ended with a Kewell cross from the left side.

It must be said however, that we did win on penalties. We couldn’t score the second goal that would have spared us the ultimate drama. These celebrations could have so easily been post-mortems if it weren’t for the saves of Mark Schwarzer. Twice he picked the right number in the lottery and kept the ball out of the Australian net. Viduka missed, but Kewell, Neill, Vidmar and Aloisi made no mistake.

Tony Vidmar is 35 but he played like a 27-year-old at the peak of his career and didn’t look a day over 34. With Neill and Chipperfield, Vidmar formed an Australian defence that dominated the Uruguayan attack. They played the ball intelligently and patiently. The organisation, composure and patience of the back three is a testament to the fantastic coaching of Guus Hiddink.

Vince Grella was fantastic once again. His poor marking in Montevideo was a blight on an otherwise great game. Last night he was simply great. In the attacking half of the ground, Bresciano, Culina and Cahill passed the ball amongst themselves intelligently as they looked to get the ball wide. Bresciano’s corners were very disappointing but otherwise it is hard to fault the man. He scored with a beautiful shot that followed on from Kewell’s magnificent through-ball.

Cahill went down wonderfully in the box early in the game. Unfortunately the defender was about three feet behind him and the chances of a penalty were rather slim. The three midfielders were good without being exceptional, Cahill looking the most dangerous.

Brett Emerton was disappointing but with Chipperfield and Kewell dominating on the left flank, the ball was always more likely to head to that side of the pitch perhaps forcing Emerton to play more defensively than he would have liked and not allowing him to show us his real attacking flair.

Captain Mark Viduka was talismanic – a troublesome presence for the Uruguayans again. His presence requires the attention of two, sometimes three defenders. Though he may not have had many shots on goal, the side is structured around his aerial ability and central positioning. Without him there would be far less space for the likes of Kewell.

John Aloisi came on for Bresciano and didn’t have a huge impact until the penalty score was Australia 3, Uruguay 2.

The ultimate hero however was Mark Schwarzer. He brilliantly saved two penalties and controlled his box well. He started poorly – a bouncing ball ricocheting off his chest and almost into the path of the Morales – but he looked assured and confident for the rest of the match. In the end his saves ensured Australia will be present at the biggest global sporting event.

Our coach cannot be forgotten. Guus Hiddink had only five months and three competitive games to prepare Australia for these World Cup qualifiers yet his impact has been astounding. The team was structured, kept their shape and the players were confident,
composed and patient. Guus was the man who raised the Australian players to the level required to qualify for next year’s World Cup. He is a national hero in South Korea already, and now he is our own Dutch national hero. Thanks Guus.

Henry Thornton has the full report and player ratings here.

Peter Fray

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