Australia 3 Japan 1
Hop on board, turn the ignition, and let's get this bandwagon moving, mate! In eight short minutes Australia went from desperately trying to salvage anything at all against Japan to complete euphoria. Not since Kylie Minogue first posed provacatively has this much excitement emanated from Down Under. It was fast and furious and in the end Japan was trampled. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oy, oy, oy!
OK, maybe I'm overstating it a bit. After all, Japan is Japan and the Aussies still have the more formidable Brazillians and Croatians to face, but it was quite a frantic and successful end to a long day for Australia.
After trailing most of the match and appearing just about at their wits end, Tim Cahill saved the Aussies with goals in the 84th and 89th minutes and John Aloisi clinched it with a third in injury time. Interestingly, both were substitutes, which should immediately cue all the usual talk about Gus Hiddink being a tactical genius, which he may just be, but, in this case at least, he was probably more lucky than good.
Why? Cahill is arguably Australia's best player and only began the game on the bench because he recently returned from a knee injury. Meanwhile, John Aloisi has been prolific as a striker in the past, entering the World Cup with 22 goals in 39 appearances with the Aussies. That's not a shabby record. He scored twice against both Germany and Argentina in last year's Confederation Cup and notched the goal in the qualifying playoff against Uraguay that clinced a spot in Germany this summer. Point is, it wasn't completely unexpected that they did what they did. It's actually more surprising that Hiddink didn't start either player than it is that they did so well once inserted. So, you think Cahill starts next time out against Brazil? Was Elle McPherson perhaps Australia's finest-ever export? Um, yeah.
It was probably fitting that Australia ultimately got back in it near the end. Had they not, the stench of a close game decided by a questionable call would have hung ominously in the air. Japan's goal in the 26th minute was both cotroversial and ugly. Shunsuke Nakamura softly lobbed a ball into the box and Aussie goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer made a mess of it, colliding with a Japanese player (or being collided with, depending on your point of view) and failing to get a fist to the ball, which slowly bounced into the net. Some might argue that the goal should have been disallowed because Schwarzer was interfered with, but really, the Japanese player had equal rights to the ball and did nothing malicious to Schwarzer. I understand goalkeepers are protected, but we're not talking NFL quarterbacks here. Hell, Schwarzer should have simply been embarrassed for not being able to outjump the much smaller Japanese players.
Legit or not, Japan's goal was ugly and Australia controlled much of the game even if their creativity waned in the final third of the field and Japanese goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi made some spectacular saves. When Cahill scored the equalizer following a melee in front of the net, it appeared the game would end in a tie, which would have seemed fair all around. Of course, the Aussies had other plans and quickly turned the game on its head. And you had to feel good for the Aussies and their fans. After all, 95,000 of them had attended an Australia-Greece friendly recently in Melbourne. A friendly! Now that's devotion. Australia has some of the best sporting fans on the globe and you know most of them were going nutty Down Under during that frantic final eight minutes. Good for them.
As an interesting aside, this game could mark the beginning of what might be an interesting rivalry to keep an eye on in coming years. Australia recently joined the Asian confederation (having apparently grown tired of beating out New Zealand in the Oceania region only to face a treachorous set of playoffs) and you have to figure these two teams will run into each other quite often with continental supremacy on the line. They should be the giants of Asia for the forseeable future, and Hiddink did his best to spark a little life into any potential rivalry by unabashedly pushing a Japanese trainer who was attempting to enter the field to attend to an injured player. Apparently, Hiddink felt Japan, which was leading at the time, was time wasting and he wanted his feelings out in the open. And there they were. On camera in front of billions, most notably a Japanese viewing audience which must have been none too pleased with such disrespect.
A genius and a madman? Makes sense, I guess.