Australia has scrapped through to the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup on Tuesday morning, defeating a gallant Uzbekistan on penalties after neither side troubled the scoresheet in the game’s proceeding 120 minutes.
Saving penalties from Islom Tukhtakhujaev and Marat Bikmaev, goalkeeper Mathew Ryan proved the Socceroos saviour during the shootout, captain Mark Milligan, Robbie Kruse, Apostolos Giannou and Matthew Leckie converting their spot-kicks to send the Australian’s through 4-2.
Head Coach Graham Arnold made one change to the Socceroos starting XI that secured passage to the Round of 16 with a 3-2 win over Syria, shifting Milligan into the midfield and withdrawing Massimo Luongo to make room for the returning from suspension Trent Sainsbury.
Notable in his inclusion to the squad was Mathew Leckie, available off the bench for the first time in the tournament after overcoming a hamstring injury suffered while with club side Hertha Berlin.
The decision to shake up his midfield was a risky one by Arnold, the reshuffling altering an XI that had fostered what was possibly Tom Rogic’s best performance in a Socceroos shirt in its previous hit out.
Sounding an early warning, it was Uzbekistan that produced the first clear-cut chance of the game in the 10th minute when Jaloliddin Masharipov laced looping ball over the Australian lines for Eldor Shomurodov to run onto. Collecting the ball on the left, Shomurodov lost Sainsbury far too easily as he cut inside and forced a low save from Mathew Ryan.
Not only were the Uzbeks shutting down the Socceroos’ passing avenues when forced to defend early, but they also had clearly identified an area to exploit in the attack: abusing the forward movement of wing-backs Aziz Behich and Rhyan Grant by looping long balls into the space left in their wake.
Javokhir Sidikov almost had the Uzbeks ahead with a superb long-range effort in the 28th minute when he ran into space left vacant by a covering Milligan to receive a ball from Masharipov, his resulting shot flashing just to the left of the post.
Héctor Cúper’s White Wolves continued to find acres of space as the first half wore on, a perfect example demonstrated in the 37th minute when Shomurodov cut the ball back to a wide-open Dostonbek Khamdamov atop the Australian penalty area.
While Khamdamov would sky his resulting shot, the space afforded to both himself and his two teammates alongside flashed clear danger signs for Arnold’s men.
Rogic attempted to spur the Socceroos five minutes into the second half when he stormed into the Uzbek penalty area before eventually losing the ball, but it was becoming apparent that Arnold’s gamble to replace the flair of Luongo with the defensive focus of Milligan in the Socceroos midfield was backfiring.
Despite monopolizing possession early in the second stanza, creativity was still frustratingly absent from the Socceroos attempts to break down a tiring White Wolves defence.
That trend began to shift, however, with the 68th-minute introduction of Leckie.
The 27-year-old provided an almost instant spark upon arrival when he combined with Rogic to spring the Socceroos on a dangerous counter-attack that Maclaren just couldn’t finish.
His worth was then further hammered home in the 77th minute when he came agonisingly close to opening the scoring when he effortlessly breezed past Oleg Zoteev and let loose with a shot Nesterov was forced to dive and palm away with one hand.
The Socceroos, nevertheless, proved unable to tame the White Wolves resistance, with neither side able to find a winner within 90 minutes and forcing the game into extra time.
Chris Ikonomidis and Leckie both tested Nesterov three minutes into the extra football, before a clever dummy from substitute Kruse to set Behich for an unsuccessful shot in the 98th minute and a 105th minute shot from Rogic continued the pressure.
They would prove the last of the chances on offer, nonetheless, with the final 15 minutes of extra time passing relatively incident free to set up a torturous, but ultimately successful, penalty shootout.
“We played really well in the second half,” Fox Sports analyst John Aloisi said post-match
We deserved to win the game
“They were playing well, and that confidence grew into the penalty shootout.”