Australia got the win they wanted in Nelspruit on Wednesday night, but not the number of goals they needed as the Socceroos were eliminated from Group D on goal difference behind Ghana. Germany, 1-0 winners over the Black Stars in Johannesburg, topped the group on six points, while the Aussies and Ghanaians finished on four and the Serbians three.
Budweiser Man of the Match Tim Cahill was back in the team, after being dismissed in the ultimately decisive 4-0 opening loss to the Germans, and it was the Everton man who scored the crucial opening goal of the match on 69 minutes. Substitute Brett Holman doubled the lead just four minutes later before Marko Pantelic pulled one back late on to set up a grandstand finish.
Both teams approached the encounter at the Mbombela Stadium knowing they needed to win and the game started at a high tempo. Serbia's Milos Krasic was an early danger down their right wing, testing goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer at his near post inside the first five minutes. In the 12th minute, Krasic had an even better chance when sprung free in the box by Milos Ninkovic's defence-splitting pass after an Australia corner, but the CSKA Moscow man took it too wide and could not get his shot on target around the advancing Schwarzer.
Krasic then turned provider, finding Zdravko Kuzmanovic streaking into the area, but he fired well wide when he might have done better in the 16th minute. Another pass from the right in the 23rd minute picked out Branislav Ivanovic, who pulled the ball back well from close range, but Schwarzer reacted quickly to save with his out-stretched left arm. The onslaught against Australia left-back David Carney continued in the 34th minute as Ivanovic crossed to a loosely marked Nikola Zigic, but the Serbia striker did not connect cleanly and the ball slid off his head. Four minutes later, Krasic did have the ball in the back of the Australian net, but he was narrowly offside.
The two best chances of the first half for the Asian Zone representatives fell to Cahill, but the Everton midfielder headed wide just after the half-hour mark and then lost his footing in the 39th minute after Carney had picked him out all alone in the middle of the Serbian box. But Pim Verbeek's side came out with more purpose in the second half and two long-range efforts put a lump in Serbian throats. First, Jason Culina blazed wide from 25 yards after the defence failed to clear a free-kick, and Bresciano then stung the goalkeeper's hands with a blast from just outside the area when given too much space.
And though the Serbians continued to create chances as well, with Zigic firing over from close range and Kuzmanovic heading over from near the penalty spot, it was the Aussies who found the net. Again talisman Cahill was the inspiration, showing more determination to leap over the defence and head in a long cross. As Serbia pushed for the equaliser, Australia produced another moment of brilliance, this time from Holman, who picked the ball up near his halfway line and screamed in a long-range shot low into Vladimir Stojkovic's goal.
With their South Africa 2010 hopes slipping away, the eastern Europeans battled forward and second-half substitute Zoran Tosic was a constant threat. It was his hard shot that was spilled by Schwarzer, and fellow substitute Pantelic was first to the ball for an easy score. Remarkably that meant that the Serbians could have gone through with another goal, but despite some goalmouth opportunities, they did not force a save from Schwarzer, although Culina did have a one-on-one bravely saved by Stojkovic at the other end in the final moments.