Undefeated and having yet to concede a goal in the final stage of Asian Zone qualifying, Australia will be sitting pretty if they can see off the challenge of a depleted and travel-weary Uzbekistan in Sydney tomorrow. Indeed, the Socceroos will book their ticket to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ should they claim maximum points, and the Bahrain-Qatar match finishes level in Manama.
It is a far cry from four years ago, when John Aloisi's left-foot strike to win the penalty shoot-out against Uruguay confirmed his side's progression on the last day of global qualification. That now iconic image followed 210 agonising minutes over two legs, not to mention 32 years of near-misses and heartbreak for long-suffering Australian fans since qualification was last achieved for the FIFA World Cup.
An Uzbekistan side which appears to have awoken from their lethargic start to the campaign will likely provide a severe test for the home side. The Uzbeks will be filled with confidence by their 4-0 win over Qatar on Saturday, however, the long trip to Australia on a charter flight will have done little to assist with their recovery.
Australia is well prepared for the match, with coach Pim Verbeek having the rare luxury of an assembled squad for a full week prior to the game, which contrasts markedly with the preparation time for a number of games in the current campaign. However, Australia do have injury concerns with star midfield pair Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano, together with defender Michael Beauchamp and defensive midfielder Carl Valeri. Notable injury absentees are Blackburn Rovers duo Vince Grella and Brett Emerton, domestic-based centre-back Craig Moore plus Newcastle United forward Mark Viduka.
We said from day one that Uzbekistan are a dangerous side.
Australia have a proud FIFA World Cup qualifying record at home, with their only reversal since 1981 being defeat by China PR last year when Verbeek fielded a weakened side. Evergreen goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, mindful of Uzbekistan's abilities, issued a word of caution about the visitors. "We said from day one that Uzbekistan are a dangerous side and definitely up until Saturday, had underperformed and were not in the position they really should have been in."
Even if Australia fail to reach South Africa 2010 on Wednesday, they will be aware that victory will leave them just one point shy of automatic qualification with three matches remaining. Defeat for Uzbekistan will leave Japan well placed for the other automatic qualification berth with, the Central Asian nation in a dogfight with Qatar and Bahrain for third position and a play-off spot.
Uzbekistan go into the match with a significant injury cloud hanging over key midfielder Server Djeparov. The reigning AFC Asian Player of the Year was forced to leave the field at half-time in Saturday's match against Qatar, following a heavy challenge, and has trained only lightly since arriving in Australia.
Remaining in Uzbekistan is fullback Islom Inomov and midfielder Ildar Magdeev, with the most notable omission being captain Maksim Shatskikh, who was also left out of the touring party by coach Mirdjalol Kasimov with fitness concerns. Uzbekistan's bad luck even affected Kasimov, who missed the media conference the day prior to the match due to illness. He will be buoyed by the scoring form of Farhod Tadjiyev, though, the 22-year-old Pakhtakor striker who bagged a hat-trick against Qatar.
The two teams played out a tight contest in Tashkent last year, with the visitors triumphing 1-0 thanks to a goal from defender Scott Chipperfield. A repeat of that scoreline could make Australia the first team to join the host nation at South Africa 2010.