On a miserable wet Sydney night, Australia’s hopes of automatic qualification for the World Cup came to an end in an equally drab fashion with a 2-0 defeat to Japan.
Substitute Kaoru Mitoma popped up with goals in the 89th and 94th minute at Accor Stadium to book his country’s direct route to the finals in Qatar.
The visitors dominated Australia from start to finish and could have finished with five or six goals as they inflicted the Socceroos’ first live World Cup qualifier loss on home soil in 40 years.
Graham Arnold, who returned to the dugout after spending time in COVID-19 isolation, must now steer a side through the intercontinental play-offs to get to Qatar.
Australia lacked any creativity and it was only through scrambling defence that they were able to keep Liverpool’s Takumi Minamino at bay after he hit the woodwork twice.
“We played a very defensive team in Japan and we didn’t get the result we wanted,” Arnold said.
“The effort was fantastic but tying up third place and having that play-off like we did in 2018… it’s always difficult to qualify for a World Cup.
“We’ve got to brush ourselves off and we’ll learn a lot from tonight.”
While Japan and Saudi Arabia are now qualified directly, Australia face a dead rubber match away to Saudi Arabia in Jeddah next week before facing the third-placed team in Group A – either Syria, Lebanon or UAE.
Should they advance they will have to beat South America’s fifth-best team.
But, even if they get there, this is a team that is limping towards the finish line with just one win in six.
They were consistently overstretched defensively and their best chance of each half came from a cross lumped into the ineffective Mitchell Duke and from Ajdin Hrustic firing a free-kick at Japanese goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda in the second.
The ball did go in the back of the net for the home side in the 23rd minute when Trent Sainsbury challenged goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda at a corner.
The ball was turned in for an own goal by Miki Yamane at the back post, but Bahraini referee Nawaf Shukralla immediately ruled the goal out.
The contact on the keeper from Sainsbury was light and Arnold said the decision was reflective of Australia’s campaign.
“I haven’t seen it back and there’s quite a few texts saying it was contentious and 50/50,” he said.
“At the end of the day we haven’t seemed to have got many of these decisions in this campaign.”
Melbourne City youngster Marco Tilio also entered the fray in the second half and he looked the most likely of any Socceroos player to conjure anything.
But it was another substitute, Mitoma, who made the difference. A ball was cut back from the byline and the 23-year-old fizzed a bobbling ball past Mat Ryan to put Japan ahead.
Arnold looked to the sky and then a second came late into stoppage time as Mitoma weaved through a sea of static Australian defenders from the left.
He fired at Ryan who didn’t have enough to prevent the ball from trickling into the goal.