Striker Josh Kennedy scored five minutes after coming off the substitutes’ bench at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium last night to send the Socceroos to the four-yearly championship for the third straight time. They join Japan in advancing from Group B in Asia’s fourth qualifying round.
“It’s been a really tough campaign,” Australia captain Lucas Neill said in a televised interview. “Sorry, it wasn’t pretty. But we’ve beaten what was in front of us and pushed ourselves on to a very exciting tournament.”
Iran advanced as the Group A winner after Reza Ghoochannejhad’s goal in Ulsan sealed a 1-0 victory against the South Koreans, who secured their eighth straight World Cup appearance as the group runner-up on goal difference ahead of Uzbekistan, which routed Qatar 5-1.
Uzbekistan, which scored all five goals in the second half in Tashkent, finished in third place and will face Oman or Jordan in a playoff on Sept. 6 and 10. The winner of that two-match series will take on South America’s fifth-ranked team, currently Uruguay, for another spot at next year’s 32-nation tournament in Brazil.
After qualifying for the 2010 edition with two games to spare, four draws from its first seven matches had left Australia needing to beat Iraq to guarantee a direct berth.
In front of a crowd of 80,532 in rainy Sydney, the Socceroos struggled to break down an understrength Iraq until the 83rd minute when Kennedy, making his first appearance for the national team in 19 months, headed Mark Bresciano’s cross past visiting goalkeeper Noor Sabri.
Kennedy ran to the corner flag to celebrate and was mobbed by his teammates on the pitch and substitutes’ bench. His arrival in place of fan favorite Tim Cahill minutes earlier had been met with jeers from some sections of the crowd. Cahill, who plays for the New York Red Bulls, had a downtown Sydney highway temporarily named after him in the build-up to the match.
“I guess it was meant to be, the boss was saving me for the last game obviously,” Kennedy said. “It was absolutely amazing. It’s been a long road to get back where I am now and this is the icing on the cake.”
The Socceroos finished with 13 points in Group B, four behind Japan, which two weeks ago became the first time to qualify for the World Cup. Brazil, the record five-time champion, has an automatic berth as the tournament host.
Ahead of their final group game later in Amman, Oman has nine points and Jordan seven. Iraq is bottom on five.
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