Australia grab late equalizer
Brett Holman's 85th-minute equalizer helped Australia save a 2-2 draw against Oman on Tuesday, and narrowly avoid a shocking upset in an Asian qualifier for the 2014 World Cup.
Holman's 25-yard strike capped a remarkable rally, after Australia had fallen 2-0 behind to Omani forward Abdul Mubarak's early strike and an own goal by Mile Jedinak just after half time.
Tim Cahill again proved to be Australia's talisman with a powerful headed goal in the 51st to keep the hosts in the contest, but a string of fine saves by Oman's Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi kept the Socceroos from finding the winner.
Australia and Oman improved to six points in Group B and were seven points behind runaway leader Japan, which was playing away to Jordan (four points) later Tuesday.
Oman coach Paul Le Guen said his team proved it was becoming more competitive against the stronger regional rivals.
''I think we are improving step by step,'' Le Guen said. ''When you compare the game we play here compared to 18 months ago, we are better.
''I think we deserved the draw today. I knew we were close to the big teams than we were before but each free kick, each corner, we were in trouble.''
Australia was stunned in the sixth minute when Abdul Mubarak found space behind Michael Thwaite and cleverly slid the ball through the legs of goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer from a tight angle.
The early goal set the tone for the first half, with the 105th-ranked Oman defending deeply, denying Australia space and time in attack.
The Australians struggled for creativity and took 37 minutes to register a shot on target, with Aston Villa midfielder Holman's header easily saved by Al Habsi.
The frustration was most clearly evident from Australia coach Holger Oseick, a frequent visitor to the edge of his technical zone as he berated his seemingly lethargic team.
''It was definitely not what we expected,'' Oseick said of team's poor first half. ''We had different hopes according to that game but unfortunately the first half was not according to plan and we almost had to pay dearly for that.''
Oseick said Oman played the way he'd expected and the Australians didn't seize any momentum.
''We didn't breakthrough, we always passed backwards, we delayed our game, there was no penetration, there was no quick ball up into the center and we basically played into their cards,'' he said. ''That was the reason why we didn't do well in the first half.''
Halftime was greeted with a chorus of boos from the crowd of 34,603 at Stadium Australia, which only got louder when the second half started with defender Jedinak deflecting Omani Raed Ibrahim's 49th-minute cross past Schwarzer.
The shock of conceding a second goal immediately spurred Australia, with Cahill's powerful header from Luke Wilkshire's corner easily beating Al Habsi.
It was Cahill 27th international goal and he now sits two goals behind Damien Mori as Australia's highest goalscorer.
''It's hard to compete with him,'' Le Guen said. ''He is one of the best players in the world in the air.''
Al Habsi then produced two outstanding reflex saves within a minute to deny Alex Brosque and Cahill before Wilkshire's shot deflected off Mohamed Saleh, onto the crossbar and then the post and away to safety.
Australia maintained the pressure on the Oman defense by bringing on attacking midfielder Mark Bresciano and striker Archie Thompson, but it was Cahill who again went close to equalizing when his 74th-minute header was spectacularly saved by Al Habsi diving to his left.
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With time ticking away, Holman attempted a low drive from distance which escaped Al Habsi's desperate dive and hit the bottom corner of the net for the equalizer.
Cahill, voted player of the match, was again denied by Al Habsi four minutes into stoppage time with the Omani keeper somehow palmed away the New York Red Bulls star's effort.
''In the second I think you could see the spirit was back,'' Oseick said. ''The boys really tried to turn things around despite the fact that we conceded the early second goal.
''I think we had other opportunities to score from, but basically it's a 2-2 draw and we have to live with that.''
Australia's next game is away to group leader Japan in June, with Oman set to host Iraq in what is looming as key round of matches in determining who will qualify for the World Cup in Brazil.
''If you look at our situation in the table, it actually hasn't changed, said Oseick. ''We are still in second position and we still have the two home games but I would never ever just count on them.
''We have to definitely display a better performance, not just over 30 minutes but over 90 minutes.''