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Japan and Australia put on another classic the other night at the Saitama Super Arena, in front of 62,000 passionate fans.
There is no doubt that the Socceroos-Blue Samurai rivalry is now our National Team’s most storied, constantly producing games of great tension, skill, drama and mutual respect.
What truly began on an unforgettable June evening in Kaiserslautern seven years ago, continued in Saitama last night.
In fact, the Socceroos 3-1 win at the 2006 World Cup marks the only time that the two teams have been separated by more than one goal since the decision was made to move the Socceroos into the Asian qualifying region.
It was a breath of fresh air watching last night’s qualifier in which two teams went at each other from the outset, not once resorting to histrionics, time-wasting or cheap fouls.
The 90 minutes was controlled impeccably by referee Nawaf Shukralla, certainly the most composed referee in the region.
His job was helped by two sides who went about the business of playing football, and while Japan did a lot of it, the Socceroos were almost faultless defensively, and looked dangerous in transition, something we have not been able to say for quite some time.
Despite a lack of regular game time, Brett Holman’s performance at Number 10 was fantastic.
Not just the defence splitting passes that sent Robbie Kruse into space on a few occasions, but his outstanding work rate in getting back to help Mark Bresciano and Mark Milligan plug the gaps the Japanese were looking to exploit with their fleet-of-foot two touch passing.
Tommy Oar’s selection was a breath of fresh air and he certainly repaid Holger Osieck’s faith with his contribution.
He seemed almost too eager in the first half, playing balls into the box when he might have been more circumspect.
But he gave the Socceroos pace down the left and a vibrancy in the front third that had been lacking in more recent fixtures.
While his goal may have been fortuitous, it was no more than he deserved, even if it did have Japanese keeper Kawashima flapping like a an outback Aussie trying to wave away flies.
Once again, ageing warriors Lucas Neill and Sase Ognenovski rose to the occasion.
Without doubt they were troubled by the speed and potency of Japan’s attacking artists Honda and Kagawa, but they were resolute, inevitably well-positioned, and made the tackles and interceptions that mattered.
They were helped by a midfield that worked hard to compress the space left by Australia’s deeper lying defence, but in the end, the Blue Samurai’s only goal came from the penalty spot.
A statue of Tim Cahill should be erected at the Olympic Stadium.
There is no more whole-hearted and spirited character to wear the green and gold. That said, his deployment as a loan striker is very hit and miss, as it is not the position in which he made his reputation both here and in the English Premier League.
It is the one vexing issue to come out of last night’s game, for Cahill must play; his presence and energy alone demand it. It’s just fitting him into the right spot that is the challenge.
Looking ahead, I hope the Australian public answer the call and pack out both Docklands and the Olympic Stadium in the coming weeks.
I also hope the ground preparations ensure a playing surface worthy of the occasion. There was a huge difference in the surface at Saitama compared to the cow paddock twelve months ago for the corresponding game in Brisbane.
Give the teams a green carpet for two red carpet occasions.