Ajdin Hrustic smashed in an 84th minute winner against the United Arab Emirates in Qatar to leave Australia, in the words of coach Graham Arnold, kicking, biting and scratching towards a fifth-straight World Cup finals appearance.
The Frankfurt star’s powerful volley from the edge of the box – called a “nuclear weapon” by match commentator Andy Harper – restored the Aussies’ lead after Jackson Irvine earlier had a goal equalised four minutes after scoring.
Australia will face Peru in next week’s inter-continental play-off in Qatar, with the winner of that match moving on to November’s finals.
“We’ve been working our arse off,” said Hrustic, who two weeks ago lifted the Europa League, scoring from the penalty spot against Rangers.
“We’ve been through a lot and I don’t think people realise how much work we’ve put in. We’re happy.
“We never dropped our heads. We started to dominate even more, we weren’t sloppy and the second goal was well deserved.”
“It was the difference in the end – a fantastic strike there’s no too ways about it,” said former Socceroo Luke Wilkshire on the 10 post-game coverage.
“He got more involved in the second half and that strike is phenomenal. It took a goal like that to break it because we made hard work of it.”
A timid and nervy first half gave way to an exciting second half where the Australians stepped it up.
“It was a slow burner – the first half was very tentative,” said Wilkshire.
“We made hard work of it. Their keeper wasn’t called into action hardly at all throughout the game. We need to improve going into the next game but that’s job done.”
His former Socceroos teammate Mark Milligan agreed.
“The second half was better than the first and we probably deserved the win in the end. We were a little more aggressive but the UAE gave as good as they got to be fair and created plenty of opportunities. Australia rode their luck at times.
Irvine’s 53rd minute strike, set up by the ever vibrant Martin Boyle down the right, was cancelled out by Caio Canedo’s equaliser in the 57th minute but Arnold’s men rallied to find the winner.
Boyle, with his father watching him play for Australia for the first time, was impressive throughout and too hot for the UAE defence to handle.
At the other end, UAE’s lively winger Harib Abdalla tormented Australia’s right-back Nathaniel Atkinson and that appears to be a problem position for the Socceroos moving into the next stage.
“He had a tough night, Atkinson,” said Wilkshire. “There’s no doubting that. Abdalla was a constant threat and their goal came from there as well when he stood Bailey Wright up on his left foot and delivered. That will be an area of concern. Atkinson’s strengths are going forward, not so much defensively and playing that way wasn’t well suited to him.”
Socceroos goalkeeper Mat Ryan was forced into several strong saves, while Craig Goodwin missed two wonderful chances in the second half.
“He’s built a reputation when he gets chances like that you expect him to score them,” said Milligan.
Arnold said the slow start was tactical.
“I’m proud of the boys. We’ve been able to get together and prepare for this game well. It’s the first time we’ve been able to play a friendly, against Jordan, for three years,” Arnold said.
“Being able to prepare the boys good, you saw that in the performance.
“You’ve got to give credit to UAE, they played well, but we knew they’d sit back and we didn’t want to play a game where we opened the field up too much because they’ve got some quality players.
“We made sure we stayed nice and compact and we’ll improve even more for the next game.”
Arnold said he needed to tidy up at the back, where UAE were too quick to penetrate, an area Peru will be quick to seize upon.
“Overall I thought defensively we were good and I saw a good reaction tonight,” Arnold said.
“That’s what I’ve been driving into the boys ever since I came into the camp about the Aussie DNA and that is kick, bite scratch and do whatever you’ve got to do to win the game and however you win it who cares, just win it.”
“It was a tough one,” said Boyle.
“The most disappointing thing was when we scored we conceded straight away but we showed good character and dominated the majority of the game.
“Maty made a few good saves at the near post but I thought we were really good and took the chances when they came.
“We controlled the game, kept the ball well and kept them to minimal chances, kept putting the ball wide and creating chances.”
Boyle paid tribute to the Socceroos’ match winner.
“Adjin’s a top player. He’s had a fantastic few weeks so he was obviously coming into the camp in good spirits.
“The quality he brings to the team is brilliant and he’s come up trumps and got us into the final. But it’s only job half done. We have to dust ourselves down and prepare and go again.”