Australia book World Cup spot
By Football News
Josh Kennedy scored a crucial header as Australia became the third side to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil with a 1-0 win over Iraq.
Needing a victory to ensure their third straight visit to the global football showpiece, the Socceroos looked like blowing their chance as the stubborn visitors held firm for more than 82 minutes.
But in his first international appearance in 19 months, Kennedy came off the bench to nod home Mark Bresciano's cross seven minutes from time to send the crowd of 80,532 into delirium.
Australian boss Holger Osieck had received a few boos from the home fans when he opted to substitute favourite son Tim Cahill for Kennedy just a few minutes earlier. However, the decision proved a masterstroke as Kennedy gave Iraq goalkeeper Noor Sabri no chance with a well-placed header from just six yards out.
The narrow victory means that the Socceroos will finish second in their group behind Japan and avoid going into the lottery of the play-offs later this year.
Australia started well and almost had something to cheer inside two minutes when Cahill nearly opened the scoring. After combining with Robbie Kruse on the edge of the box, the ball eventually fell to Cahill who blasted a powerful left-foot shot which drew a brilliant reflex save from Sabri.
The hosts continued to dominate possession and create plenty of meaningful chances, with Sasa Ognenovski wasting a clear sight of goal after 15 minutes.
After Iraq failed to clear Luke Wilkshire's free-kick, Lucas Neill swung in a perfect cross from the right but his central defensive partner couldn't divert his header on target.
The rest of the half followed a similar theme, with the Socceroos probing without fully testing Sabri.
When they did manage to get a sight on goal the opportunities fell to Cahill, whose header from Wilkshire's corner lacked the power.
The best chance came 10 minutes before the break and again it fell to Australia's talisman.
Matt McKay got down the left and swung in a cross which was spilled by the Iraqi captain, the ball falling behind Cahill, who sent an acrobatic effort over his shoulder that went just the wrong side of the post.
Iraq made a strong start to the second half with Saif Salman's long-range effort forcing Mark Schwarzer to scramble down to his left to save inside the first two minutes.
Australia soon regained the initiative, though, with Bresciano getting two shots in on goal in the space of a minute, one sailing high and wide and the other a tame effort straight at Sabri.
Searching for ways to unlock the stubborn Iraqi defence, Osieck then introduced young star Tom Rogic on the hour and the Celtic midfielder immediately lifted the tempo.
The hosts thought they had the crucial breakthrough 25 minutes from time when a poor headed clearance landed perfectly for Kruse to volley home from just outside the box.
However, celebrations soon turned to despair as Iranian referee Faghani Alireza had already blown for a foul by Ognenovski in the lead-up.
The close call only added to the tension, which soon turned to shock among the home fans as Cahill made way for Kennedy.
The striker, though, took just six minutes to make an impact, sending his header past Sabri to get celebrations under way and seal Australia's passage to Brazil.