Shaken to uncertainty by a calculated China game-plan for much of the opening half, it took a fresh second-half attitude and two trademark big-tournament goals from Tim Cahill to propel the Socceroos into the Asian Cup semi-finals in Newcastle next week.
This was a very stern test that Ange Postecoglou and his men appeared to be failing early, so it was a credit they were able to stay composed and pass the test in the second half.
For 30 minutes it looked like they didn’t have an answer to Alain Perrin’s shrewd strategy.
Allowing the ball to come out of the back through returning skipper Mile Jedinak, China sat off and waited for the ball the enter their half, then applied an instant press as soon as Jedinak passed, blocking the passing avenues, intercepting and countering swiftly through the speed of Wu Lei, playing alone up top.
Congesting the midfield and playing a compact bank of two lines, this was tough work for the Socceroos.
There was little more then 25 to 30 metres between the front and back of China’s formation, and by not dropping off to their 18-yard box they were able to squeeze the Roos, and threaten through rapid transition.
Postecoglou went for Mark Bresciano alongside Jedinak and Massimo Luongo in central midfield, but neither Bresciano or Luongo could get on the ball between the defensive and midfield line. There was absolutely no space.
The supply to Cahill, Robbie Kruse and Matt Leckie was non existent. Jedinak was having a nightmare, trying to break the shackles by spraying long diagonal balls to the flanks. Unfortunately his passing range let him down, whether short or long.
Fortunately for the Socceroos Trent Sainsbury stepped up in the absence of Matt Spiranovic. Asked to take the defensive leader role, he took the responsibility of getting his foot on the ball, carrying it forward and becoming the distributor out of the back.
With China not applying a high press, and only Lei up top, Sainsbury had space and used it effectively, taking the ball-carry and distribution burden off Jedinak.
What was equally impressive from Sainsbury was the way he covered Lei’s incredible speed on the counter, and timed his defensive interventions beautifully. This was a performance of maturity from a calm and cultured ball-playing defender who is having an outstanding tournament.
Cahill has been more quiet. With Postecoglou finding eight other scorers in the opening two games, Cahill has been used sparingly by his standards, replaced early in the opening two games and coming on late in the Korea game, where he appeared frustrated.
Even in the first half last night he was often isolated and would no doubt have gone to the dressing room exasperated, not that he showed it.
But in the second half Cahill exploded.
While many would have gone down after a head-clash with Zheng Zhi at a corner, Cahill stayed on his feet, and when a header came back in from the edge of the box, he found an inch of space and seamlessly and instinctively delivered an outrageous overhead kick across Wang Dalei.
The outrageousness wasn’t in the execution but in the fact that he continues to deliver in big games, when his nation needs him most, and he did it again moments later when Jason Davidson delivered a cross from the left that few others would have monstered with such ruthlessness.
Like many, China and Perrin would have planned for a long time how to limit Cahill’s influence, and in truth they did a great job the first 45 minutes. But one moment where Zhi was left on the ground from a head clash gave Cahill the space and changed everything.
What changed in the second for the Roos was a preparedness to move the ball quicker and get bodies moving in forward motion.
Rather than the laboured distribution of Jedinak to static bodies in the first half, which the imposing Cai Huikang controlled, there was a swiftness to the Roos’ play after the break.
Whether the Socceroos will be able to extricate themselves from a similar situation if they are to meet the higher quality of Japan in the semi-finals remains to be seen, but what’s clear is that with Cahill’s one-touch finishing the Roos are invariably a sniff.