Socceroos vs Japan one of the games of the year
Socceroos player Tim Cahill competes for the ball with Japan's Makoto Hasebe. AAP Image/Dave Hunt
The mutual respect between the two teams was palpable. Lucas Neill spoke of a great rivalry, Yuzo Kurihara talked about a strong opponent, and fans in Brisbane witnessed one of the best games of football this year.
Sometimes in football the spectacle fails to live up to the occasion, but that was certainly not the case in Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier at Suncorp Stadium.
Like two bitter heavyweights hell-bent on maximum destruction, the Socceroos and Japan slugged it out in what could only be termed a bellringer of a clash.
From the minute an inspirational Tim Cahill danced his way towards goal only to be denied by a sprawling Eiji Kawashima save, it was on for young and old on a patchy pitch in Brisbane, as all the big names put their hand up for a moment in the spotlight.
Only Shinji Kagawa was missing in action, with the soon-to-be Manchester United star failing to shine on the big stage.
Kagawa had one moment of inspiration just after the half hour mark, skipping his way through some static defence before teeing up Yuto Nagatomo, but the latter blasted his effort across the face of goal.
Instead of Kagawa it was the talismanic Keisuke Honda who looked Japan’s most dangerous player and the fact Honda showed no fear says much about big-game players.
When it came to the crunch, it was a host of familiar names who starred.
Tim Cahill, ever the belligerent when his pedigree is questioned, was Australia’s go-to man in a typically industrious display full of energy and awareness.
All Cahill needed was a goal to cap off an inspired performance which surely swept aside whispers he’s a spent force for the Socceroos.
Likewise Lucas Neill read the game superbly and only occasionally were the Australians caught out by a pacy Japanese attack, at which point either Neill or Sasa Ognenovski did just enough to put the Japanese strike force off.
That was, of course, until Honda intervened. The CSKA Moscow midfielder had clearly seen enough of his team-mates agonising over playing the final ball and took it upon himself to put Kurihara’s goal on a plate.
What is most impressive about Honda is the fact he keeps such a cool head in pressure situations – a lesson striker Shinji Okazaki could surely take on board for the Samurai Blue.
And what exactly did Yasuhito Endo do to deserve man-of-the-match honours?
I thought Endo’s performance was ponderous at best and surely the ageing midfielder is in danger of getting the dreaded tap on the shoulder to make way for a more dynamic presence in midfield.
That Australia failed to exploit a couple of important absences in the Japanese defence says much about the visitors’ depth, but then the Socceroos came so close to winning it when Ognenovski’s shot on the turn clattered off the woodwork.
It was one of those games though that hardly a deserved a winner despite the fact both sides gave their absolute all to try and register one.
And as clichéd as it may sound, the Socceroos will almost certainly be pleased to have avoided defeat in their opening two fourth round fixtures.
That’s especially the case after being reduced to 10 men on Tuesday night through referee Khalil Al Ghamdi’s baffling decision to dismiss Mark Milligan.
The penalty awarded to the Socceroos soon after seemed a dead-set square-up, so much so I had to ask Japan goalkeeper Kawashima what it had actually been awarded for.
He was nonplussed by the refereeing but honest about the result, stating that Australia proved the tough opponent Japan expected them to be.
And football fans in Brisbane got a fix of high-quality football during the long A-League off-season in what was, in my opinion, one of the best games we’ll see this year.
Mike Tuckerman is a Sydney-born journalist and lifelong football fan. After lengthy stints watching the beautiful game in Germany and Japan, he has settled in Brisbane and has been a Roar columnist since December 2008. Follow Mike on twitter @Mike_Tuckerman