Australia are on the verge of reaching for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ after a 2-0 victory over Uzbekistan. The Socceroos, on top of the Asian Zone's Group 1 with 13 points, will become the first team to qualify if Bahrain and Qatar, both on four points, draw their match in Manama later today.
Australia's goals were a long time coming after a flat first half in which the Uzbeks looked the more dangerous team on the counter-attack, and through the dangerous free-kicks of captain Server Djeparov. But a goal from substitute forward Josh Kennedy and a Harry Kewell penalty inside the final 25 minutes kept the hosts unbeaten after five games, without conceding a goal.
Australia have three qualifiers remaining in June. They will face Qatar in Doha, and entertain both Bahrain and Japan.
The Uzbeks faded in the second half as they felt the effects of their long flight and short preparation following a 4-0 home win over Qatar, which revived their qualification hopes. They almost had a dream start when striker Farhod Tadjivev, who scored a hat-trick in their win on Saturday, sprinted on to a through ball in the ninth minute, but his shot went across Mark Schwarzer and just wide of the far post.
But Australia had an even better scoring chance six minutes later, when Mark Bresciano was put on goal by Scott McDonald only to shoot straight at goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov.
The Australians had little else to show for their slow buildups and lone striker McDonald was often isolated by the Uzbek defence. They continued to be frustrated in the second half, with Jason Culina having a stinging long-range volley tipped over the bar by Djeparov on the hour.
Coach Pim Verbeek reacted by bringing on Kennedy for McDonald, who again failed to break his international goal drought. The breakthrough came for Australia six minutes after his introduction, with the towering Karlsruhe striker heading home a Bresciano cross from the right. It was Kennedy's sixth goal in 12 appearances for his country.
The match swung decisively towards the home side when Hull City's Richard Garica was brought down in the box by defender Hayrulla Karimov. Galatasaray's Harry Kewell made it 2-0 from the penalty spot on 73 minutes, and was substituted soon after by Brett Holman to a roar from the 57,292 crowd. It was Kewell's 13th goal in 39 internationals.
Uzbekistan had a great chance deep in injury time to score, but substitute Anvarjon Soliev's goal was disallowed for offside after Schwarzer had made a great reflex save from Djeparov's shot.