They say football (soccer) is a game of two halves. In reality its a game of 90 minutes where things can change in an instant. The beauty of the “round ball” game is the ability for games to dramatically turn around in the blink of an eye. The game’s critics in Australia cite low scores and the possibility of games ending deadlocked at 0-0 as reasons not to embrace the code. These detractors have failed to understand the drama involved in a game where just a momentary lapse in concentration can mean the difference between victory and despair. Australia’s world cup fortunes have been decided by a series of such moments. Some would say the moment Guus Hiddink put pen to paper on a contract agreeing to manage the Socceroos was one such turning point. The few seconds it took for Harry Kewell’s bungled shot to fall for Marco Bresciano to bury into the back of the net in the qualifying match against Uruguay were another. That goal altered the course of Australia’s World Cup campaign. The microsecond it took for Mark Schwarzer to choose the right (left) direction in what turned out to be the decisive penalty save was another key moment. All these moments played a part in Australia’s long awaited return to the world’s biggest sporting show.
Tim Cahill was Australia’s man of the moment last night. He was the man of the match too. Two moments of brilliance. Two vital goals. Tim Cahill managed to snatch Australia a victory from the jaws of an undeserved defeat. John Aloisi’s third gives Australia’s goal difference a vital boost in a group where for and against could be the difference between second round glory or an early trip home. Australia had the lion’s share of possession in the match and looked the better team in attack. Japan are a team seemingly more comfortable defending a lead than extending it. They seemed content to keep men behind the ball in defence, launching probing counter attacks down the flanks when given the opportunity. As Hiddink searched for the breakthrough he brought attackers on for defenders. His substitutions proved a masterstroke. The introduction of Tim Cahill, John Aloisi and Josh Kennedy were too much for Japan’s shaky defence to handle. Cahill buried his first through a sea of defenders. His second, coming as both teams looked content to battle it out for a draw, was a brilliant strike from outside the 18 yard box. The midfield dynamo gave some spark to an otherwise lacklustre performance from the Australian engine room. The truth is, for 80 minutes the Australian attack looked impotent. Shots were mistimed, miss hit and misplaced. Mark Viduka is potentially the game’s greatest defensive forward. His imposing physical presence keeps defenders on their toes, but he too often fails to the goal mouth itself. He looked lonely as the sole player in a one man front line. Josh Kennedy’s introduction to the fray injected some life into the Aussie attack. A regular partnership of Kennedy and Viduka as a strike duo would do much to allay concerns over Australia’s inability to get the ball across the goal line.
Schwarzer stood largely untested in the Australian goal mouth – his bungling role in Japan’s solitairy goal will be excused by some due to the attention he received from a kamikaze striker’s charge. In truth, a goalkeeper of Schwarzer’s stature should not be being forced off the ball by a diminutive striker. By rights he should have claimed that ball. Luckily he was spared further embarrassment thanks to Cahill.
Cahill’s arrival on the field last night also saw the introduction of product placement to a World Cup already teeming with sponsors. Cahill is sponsored by Weet Bix. A point the SBS commentator was only too aware of. “We can only hope he’s had his Weet Bix” he said as Cahill took the field. 33 minutes later when Cahill slipped the ball deftly between the legs of two defenders and into the net the commentator saw this as an opportunity to point out that Cahill must indeed have imbibed his daily dose of high fibre breakfast cereal. Of all the players involved in last night’s event it was the commentator who truly had a shocker. His outrage at the circumstances leading to Japan’s goal led to a constant stream of criticism for Egyptian referee Essam Abd El Fatah. As the whistle blew for half time he said something like “and perhaps fittingly the Egyptian referee has the final say, bringing the end to a sometimes controversial half of football.” Umm, could someone explain when the referee does not have the final say in a half of football?