A single-goal victory away to Chinese Taipei was enough to confirm Australia's place in the second qualifying round for the Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008 as ten nations marched on to face Asian football's heavyweights.
The Socceroos' place was never in doubt following a crushing 11-0 first leg win last week , but they made sure of back-to-back victories thanks to a 63rd-minute strike from captain Mark Milligan. The result left Robert Baan, Australia's Olympic coach and football technical director, to focus on preparing his team for the next qualifying stage, where they will face a considerably sterner test against Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in Group D.
"We have done what we needed to do tonight," said the Dutchman. "Now we can concentrate on the next match against Iran in two weeks, which will undoubtedly be a crucial match in the group." With the Australian A-League season reaching its finale on Sunday , Baan's boys will compete in the Hong Kong-hosted Lunar New Year Cup over the coming week, hoping to keep themselves sharp for that showdown with the Iranians on 28 February.
India and Pakistan advance
At the same time as Australia's U-23 side were tasting their first success on the Asian football scene, two potential giants from southern Asia were taking the preliminary stage by storm.
Pakistan and India both advanced following aggregate victories over Singapore and Myanmar, and it was the former national who caused the biggest upset by stunning nine-man Singapore 3-2 in their own back yard, edging out the Lions 5-3 on aggregate. Pakistan had only needed a draw to progress following a 2-1 away win in the first leg , but they were slow to settle into the match and found themselves two goals down inside the first 39 minutes.
However, the turning point came when Singapore were reduced to ten men a minute before the interval as midfielder Hariss Harun was given his marching orders. Yusisikander Yusap's own goal after 65 minutes only increased the sense of panic in the Lions' ranks and their worst fears were realised when Pakistan restored parity through substitute Farooq Shah 11 minutes later.
The visitors then succeeded in keeping their composure better in some tense final stages that witnessed Zulfadli Zainal pick up Singapore's second red card and Muhammad Rasool fire home Pakistan's winner one minute from time. The victorious coach, Muhammad Rasheed, later attributed the win to a key tactical change as well as the never-say-die spirit showed by the team. "Singapore played well in the first half but we employed a different tactical approach in the second half that worked," he said. "And I am pleased to see the team showed resilience in the later stages of the match."
India's victory may have been less impressive, but their goalkeeper Subrata Pal shone brightly to twice deny Myanmar in a dramatic penalty shootout after the two sides finished locked at 1-1. Manjit Singh had put India in front after 39 minutes but Myanmar equalised through Win Moe with almost the last kick of normal time. After extra time finished without any further goals, India held their nerve better in the shoot-out, converting all four of their penalties while only Kim Myang found the target for Myanmar.
It was not all good news for southern Asian sides, however. Bangladesh managed a 1-0 win over Hong Kong, but it was the eastern Asians who advanced thanks to a 3-0 first leg win that was always likely to prove difficult to overturn.
Having safely negotiated the preliminary round, the ten winning teams now face tough assignments against the continent's 14 top-ranked nations.
Pakistan, for example, will take their place in Group A alongside Bahrain, Kuwait and the reigning Asian Games champions Qatar, while India have been pitted against Group E rivals Iraq, DPR Korea and Thailand , who trounced Turkmenistan 5-1 to progress 6-1 on aggregate.
With Japan expected to dominate Group B, Hong Kong's qualifying hopes could rest on stealing second place ahead of Malaysia and Syria. Vietnam, meanwhile, who eliminated Afghanistan , will be counting on their home advantage when they open their second round campaign against Lebanon.
In Group F, many will fancy Uzbekistan's chances of springing a surprise when they play host to the United Arab Emirates in Tashkent. The central Asian outfit suffered few problems in the first round with back-to-back 4-1 wins over Tajikistan, but their hopes of booking a place in the final qualifying round are likely to depend largely on how well they fare against group favourites Korea Republic.
Preliminary qualifying round, second leg results:
Wednesday 14 February
Tajikistan 1-4 Uzbekistan
Maldives 0-1 Indonesia
Bangladesh 1-0 Hong Kong
Chinese Taipei 0-1 Australia
India 1-1, (4-1, PSO) Myanmar
Pakistan 3-2 Singapore
Thailand 5-1 Turkmenistan
Vietnam 2-0 Afganistan
Palestine 1-1 Yemen
Jordan automatically advance to the second round as Kyrgystan withdrew
Second qualifying round sections:
From 28 February - 6 June
Group A: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Pakistan
Group B: Japan, Malaysia, Syria, Hong Kong
Group C: Oman, Lebanon, Vietnam, Indonesia
Group D: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Australia
Group E: Iraq, DPR Korea, Thailand, India
Group F: Korea Republic, UAE, Uzbekistan, Yemen