The Socceroos are one game away from a fifth-straight World Cup after rising star Ajdin Hrustic’s late strike sealed a 2-1 play-off win over the United Arab Emirates in Qatar.
Hrustic’s 84th-minute goal, which was deflected on its way in, secured the win for Australia at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Doha to send them into an inter-continental play-off against Peru next week at the same venue.
The winner of that match will go on to November’s World Cup finals.
Jackson Irvine scored the opener for Australia in the 53rd minute before Brazilian-born Caio Canedo’s equaliser just four minutes later pegged the Socceroos back.
Graham Arnold’s team weren’t to be denied however and after Craig Goodwin missed a great chance to score and substitute Jamie Maclaren’s 80th-minute effort was well-saved, Hrustic stepped up to become the Socceroos’ hero.
“I hit it quite good,” Hrustic said.
“I think if it didn’t hit the UAE player it would’ve still gone in.
“Luck was on our side but we deserved it, to be honest.”
With Adam Taggart and Trent Sainsbury both ruled out on the eve of the match with injuries, Arnold turned to relatively inexperienced pair Nathaniel Atkinson and Kye Rowles in his defence while Melbourne City’s Mathew Leckie started up front.
Atkinson in particular endured a torrid first half as UAE winger Harib Abdalla constantly threatened down Australia’s right, twice forcing Mat Ryan into sharp stops.
Abdalla again tested Ryan early in the second half before Irvine’s fourth goal of the qualifying campaign put Australia ahead.
Martin Boyle found space inside the UAE penalty area to cross to Irvine, who made no mistake from point-blank range.
Some calamitous defending minutes later allowed the Emiratis to pull level, with Abdalla again getting clear down the left before Irvine failed to deal with his cross and it was swept home emphatically by Canedo.
Australia rallied and pressed for the victory, finishing the match the stronger of the two teams before Europa League winner Hrustic’s sealer.
“I was probably 50 per cent happy with our team,” Arnold said.
“There’s a lot of improvement still.
“If I went into the dressing room and asked all the players, if they’ve got some percentage of improvement in them, I think all of them would say yes.
“So that’s what we need. We need them all to play a better game against Peru.”
Australia will now have four days to prepare for Monday’s winner-takes-all clash with the Peruvians on Monday (4am AEST Tuesday).
The world No.22-ranked South American nation, who defeated the Socceroos in a group stage clash at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, will start the match as heavy favourites but Arnold says that’s a situation he’s comfortable with.
“We like people saying that we have no chance or we cannot achieve anything,” the 58-year-old, who has gone from being seemingly on the verge of getting sacked after March’s losses to Japan and Saudi Arabia to 90 minutes from leading Australia to a World Cup, said.
“That’s what I’ve been driving into these boys and sometimes you don’t play well, but you can still win by fighting and running and chasing and being aggressive. That also can be a success.”