Australia scored three goals in four minutes in the second half to beat Saudi Arabia 4-2 yesterday, dashing the Saudis' hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Saudi Arabia took a 2-1 lead in the Asian qualifying Group D match at the AAMI Stadium in Melbourne, thanks to first-half efforts from the midfielder Salem Aldawsari and striker Nassir Al Shamrani.
But Australia, the group winners, hit back in spectacular fashion with goals from Harry Kewell after 73 minutes, Alex Brosque after 75 minutes and Brett Emerton after 76. The Socceroos ended up with 15 points from six games. The Saudis, on six points, needed a victory to reach the fourth round of qualifying but their defeat meant that Oman, with eight points, went through in their stead, thanks to a 2-0 win over Thailand.
Saudi Arabia, who have been Asian champions three times, finished fatigued and demoralised on a drizzly night as they failed to progress to the World Cup finals for a second tournament in a row, having reached the four previous tournaments. Saudi Arabia played at the World Cup in the United States in 1994, in France in 1998, in Japan and Korea in 2002 and in Germany in 2006.
"If we had a little bit more courage and had stayed true to our game maybe it would have been different," the Saudi coach, the former Netherlands defender Frank Rijkaard, told reporters as he sat next to a team official who was cradling his head in his hands. "It's really sad, of course, a big blow. We were full of hope and wanted to fight for our chance and we did but we didn't succeed.
Australia initially struggled to adapt to a new attacking set-up but Brosque, who scored twice, and his strike partner Kewell combined well with the midfielders Mark Bresciano and Emerton in the second period. Bresciano was outstanding and he set up Brosque's first goal, in the 43rd minute, and Emerton's late strike with delightful through balls.
"I think in the second half we really got our stuff together," said the Australia coach, the German Holger Osieck. "We played excellent football, we played the football I really like to see.
"There was a lot of imagination, creativity... I'm very encouraged by this performance.
The Saudis started the game well and struck the first blow in the 19th minute. Aldawsari sidestepped the defender Mark Milligan and wrong-footed Bresciano before unleashing a blistering 25-metre drive that beat the goalkeeper, Fulham's Mark Schwarzer.
Playing in front of a crowd of 24,000, Australia responded through Brosque. He ran on to a deft pass from Bresciano to poke the ball beyond the Saudi goalkeeper, Waleed Ali. The Saudis went back in front in first-half stoppage time when Hassan Fallatah crossed for the unmarked striker Shamrani to convert.
Shamrani had a chance to make it 3-1 in the 72nd minute but produced a poor finish and the floodgates opened a minute later when Brosque set up Kewell, who drilled the ball low into the net. Emerton then crossed from the right to create Brosque's second goal before Bresciano put the icing on the cake by laying on the fourth goal for Emerton.
Elsewhere in the Asian qualifying groups, South Korea squeezed into the fourth round after overcoming a sluggish start to beat Kuwait 2-0 in Seoul. The Koreans remain on course for their eighth successive World Cup finals after they secured the point they needed in their final Group B game, against their 91st-ranked opponents.
Kuwait hit the post before Lee Dong-gook opened the scoring for South Korea in the 64th minute. Lee Keun-ho doubled the lead six minutes later in the new coach Choi Kang-hee's first competitive game in charge. Choi was appointed after South Korea were shocked 2-1 by Lebanon in November, a result which put their qualification for the 10-team fourth round in doubt. However, victory against Kuwait meant that they qualified for the 9 March draw as group winners.
The win also meant that Lebanon reached the fourth round as group runners-up, despite their 4-2 loss away to the United Arab Emirates. Uzbekistan finished six points clear at the top of Group C after defeating the Asian champions, Japan, 1-0 in Toyota. Both teams had already qualified for the final round of regional qualifiers but Aleksandr Shadrin's 54th-minute strike condemned Japan to a second successive defeat.
"We were in control in the first half and should have taken our chances," said the Japan coach, Alberto Zaccheroni. Uzbekistan showed real quality after the break. We've got to be ready for the final round now. We have three months to get ourselves in the best possible condition."
Shinji Okazaki went closest for Japan, hitting the bar in the first half, but a below-strength Uzbekistan side deserved their victory for their enterprise in freezing conditions.
The final whistle was greeted by jeers from supporters, who were puzzled by Zaccheroni's decision not to send on the Bolton Wanderers winger Ryo Miyaichi as a substitute, after giving the teenager his first call-up to the national team.
"The fact we lost says it all," said the Japan captain, Makoto Hasebe. "It's a tough pill to swallow but we have to put things right and step up a level in the final round of qualifying."