Socceroos on the rise
© AFP

Just over three years ago Australia qualified for their first FIFA World Cup™ in 32 years by the narrowest of margins courtesy of a penalty shoot-out win over Uruguay.

As has invariably been the case over the years, Australia had to wait until the final day of qualifying across the globe, yet this time around the Socceroos could be the first team to win their way to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa.

Currently well placed at the top of Asian Group 1, Australia could book their ticket to South Africa as early as 1 April if they defeat Uzbekistan in Sydney, scene of their epic win over Uruguay in 2005. Provided other results go their way in the previous matchday three days earlier, Australia would join hosts South Africa as 2010 participants.

Coach Pim Verbeek has built up a settled and experienced squad with a defence notoriously hard to penetrate, which has helped Australia reach an all-time high FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking of 27.

The journey so far
The current campaign began in encouraging fashion for Australia as they recorded an emphatic 3-0 home win over Qatar, in what was Verbeek's first match in charge. Australia ultimately reached the final stage of qualifying, progressing along with Qatar through a tough group with Asian champions Iraq and China eliminated.

It wasn't all smooth sailing though, with Australia losing in neutral Dubai against Iraq, while a 27-year undefeated home FIFA World Cup record was forfeited as a second-string team lost against China in the final group match. Despite recording two defeats and a draw over the six matches, the Socceroos progressed to the top of the four-team group.

We want insurance, so others can worry about the do-or-die games.
Lucas Neill on qualification for South Africa.

Halfway through the final stage of qualifying, Australia are now two points clear of Japan and six ahead of Qatar and Bahrain, with four matches remaining. Australia's tortuous FIFA World Cup history has been marked by failed sudden-death play-offs on six occasions since 1966. This time however, Australia are in the unaccustomed position of having room for error.

It is a quantum leap for the nation that missed out on France 1998 despite remaining undefeated in the qualification campaign. "We want insurance, so others can worry about the do-or-die games," said Australia captain Lucas Neill after the recent scoreless draw in Japan. "No more penalty shoot-outs, please."

The way ahead
With three of their remaining four matches at home, Australia will be optimistic of achieving their qualification goal prior to the final match in June against Japan.

The defensive capabilities of the team have been strengthened under Verbeek, led by Australia's most experienced goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer and centre-back pairing Craig Moore and skipper Neill. The trio are veterans of Germany 2006, though Moore only returned to the line-up in October after a lengthy absence from the national team, including a period out of the game due to surgery for testicular cancer. The Socceroos have conceded just one goal in four home matches, and a total of four goals across their ten matches to date.

Next up are an Uzbekistan side that will be desperate to get their slim qualification hopes back on track, but they will find the Australian side a different prospect to the defence-orientated line-up that took the field in Yokohama last week. Verbeek is also hopeful of having Harry Kewell, and even long-term absentee Mark Viduka, return to the squad.

"Next we have Uzbekistan, we play in a great stadium, with a good atmosphere, and we have one week preparation, so we're looking forward to that," says the Dutchman. "So I'm very pleased, but again, we're still not qualified, and we must be aware of that."

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