Australia were on the brink of booking their place at next year's World Cup finals in South Africa after beating Uzbekistan 2-0 at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney yesterday. Substitute Josh Kennedy broke the deadlock after 66 minutes with a header before forward Harry Kewell sealed the win in the 73rd with a penalty.
Australia, who ended a 32-year drought by qualifying as the last team for the 2006 World Cup, were suddenly very close to becoming the first country to join the host nation at the 2010 World Cup.
Yet to concede a single goal after five Asian qualifying matches, Australia were waiting for the result of Bahrain against Qatar in Manama yesterday – a draw would send them to the finals. Even without that, Australia would need to collect just one more point from their remaining three matches in June.
"There was a lot of pressure on today's game because we knew we had to win the game," the Australia captain Lucas Neill said. "It was there for us to win but we've sent a statement out to the rest of the group now, and possibly the world, that we might be the first team to qualify for the World Cup."
Both teams squandered chances to find the net in a scoreless first half but the Australians began to assert their control after the break with Uzbekistan starting to show signs of fatigue.
Kennedy opened the scoring midway through the second half when he connected with a perfectly timed cross from Mark Bresciano then Kewell put the result beyond doubt when he converted from the spot after a clumsy challenge by Hayrulla Karimov on Richard Garcia.
Uzbekistan looked to have grabbed a consolation goal in stoppage time when Anvarjon Soliev found the back of the net only to have the goal disallowed for offside. Uzbekistan, who have four points from six matches, still have a chance of finishing third in the group to reach a play-off.
Also yesterday, South Korea beat North Korea 1-0 with a late goal in a World Cup qualifier clouded by Pyongyang's plans to launch a rocket that Seoul says is a disguised long-range missile test.
With the win South Korea leap-frogged North Korea to take top spot in Asia's Group Two. North Korea are trying for their first World Cup finals since their memorable run to the last eight in 1966.
South Korea's goal came in the 87th minute when a left-footed free-kick from the substitute Kim Chi-woo slid off the hand of the North Korean goalkeeper Ri Myong-guk into the net. South Korea dominated play but failed to break through despite numerous chances including two close-range shots from Lee Keun-ho.
Prior to the game, South Korea's coach said he would like to see both Koreas, still technically at war, advance for the first time together to the World Cup finals.
The South Korean fans stood for the anthem of North Korea prior to the start of the game at Seoul's World Cup Stadium and politely cheered the opposing side.
Tensions on the divided peninsula have been raised by North Korea's plans to launch the rocket from 4 to 8 April and threats from Pyongyang that any interference from South Korea or its allies would be seen as a declaration of war.
South Korea, the United States and Japan have said the launch is a disguised test of the North's long-range Taepodong-2 missile that violates UN resolutions put in place after North Korea last fired the missile in July 2006 and conducted its first and only nuclear test a few months later.
North Korea said it was launching a satellite and had the right to do so as part of a peaceful space programme.