Tim Cahill scored twice as Australia came from behind to down Japan 2-1 and finish top of Asian Zone qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The mercurial Everton midfielder popped up for his brace after Australia had conceded their first goal in eight qualifiers to keep the team unbeaten as they head to South Africa along with Japan for next year's FIFA World Cup finals.
Cahill scored in the 59th and 76th minutes to continue his 'lucky charm' effect on the Socceroos and conjure memories of his late double when Australia came from behind to beat Japan 3-1 at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. Cahill now has 16 goals in 33 internationals.
"This is a step forward for us, it's great to finish top of the group," Cahill said. Skipper Lucas Neill said Australia were up against it in the first half before mounting their second-half comeback.
"They really played the game with intensity and they were running us ragged for a bit and we couldn't get ourselves in the game," Neill said.
"But we went out to make sure we had the first blow in the second half and we put enough pressure on them to make it show," Neill said.
Australia finished Group A with 20 points and inflicted Asian rival Japan's first defeat in 11 qualifiers this campaign. Japan last lost 1-0 to Bahrain in Manama on 26 March last year. But for a time it looked as though Japan would register a prestige win in front of almost 70,000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
This is a step forward for us, it's great to finish top of the group.
Japan's Brazilian-born defender Tulio broke the deadlock and ended Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer's seven-match run of clean sheets with a headed goal in the 40th minute. Tulio got above Nicky Carle and drove home Kengo Nakamura's corner to stunned silence from the Australian crowd. It was the first goal Australia have conceded in their eight qualifiers since a 1-0 loss to China in Sydney a year ago.
Japan almost grabbed a second goal right on halftime when Keiji Tamada's free kick just outside the box was headed off the line by Socceroos' skipper Lucas Neill. But Cahill proved Australia's hero with a trademark header 15 minutes after halftime.
Cahill and giant striker Josh Kennedy both climbed for Vince Grella's lofted free kick, but the diminutive Everton midfielder got his head to the ball first and arced it beyond goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki into the far top corner. His goal energised the Socceroos and they had a lively spell at the Japanese goal. Cahill scored his second 14 minutes from time when he volleyed home Carle's corner from close range.
"We don't see any drastic changes needed because of the defeat tonight," Japan coach Takeshi Okada said. "Both Japan and Australia rested five or six players, but the Australian team is very high quality as they showed at the last World Cup.
"We shouldn't be too pessimistic about our performance tonight. Of course, our fans must be disappointed and they want us to be stronger for next year's World Cup."
Australia fielded just three survivors, Schwarzer, Jason Culina and Mile Sterjovski, from last week's 2-0 win over Bahrain in Sydney, while Japan had seven members of the team who started in the 1-1 draw with Qatar in Yokohama. The Socceroos went in with two inexperienced wide defenders, leftback Shane Stefanutto [1 cap] and debutant Rhys Williams on the right.