BRISBANE, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Millwall and Everton might beg to differ but Tim Cahill has always saved his best for Australia.
In an age when many players are torn between the loyalties to their club and country, Cahill has never wavered from his belief that his nation always comes first.
And time and time again, he has saved Australia, conjuring up goals from nothing when his team needed them most.
In 2006, he became the first Australian to score a goal at a World Cup, scoring twice against Japan as the Socceroos registered their first World Cup win.
Four years later, he scored Australia’s second goal in a 2-1 win over Serbia at the World Cup in South Africa. And at last year’s World Cup in Brazil, he scored a stunner against the Netherlands that was rated one of the best of the tournament.
On Thursday, at the Asian Cup, he did it again, scoring twice in a 2-0 win over China in the quarter-finals with the first coming from a bicycle kick few players his age would even contemplate, let alone pull off.
The crowd roared with delirium as the 35-year-old picked himself up and ran to the corner for his trademark celebration, punching out the flag.
“It was instinctive,” he later told a news conference. “The World Cup was probably a fluke and today was a probably a fluke again.”
Lucky or not, he did again 16 minutes later, heading a cross from Mathew Leckie into the corner, taking his international goal tally to 39, the most by any Australian.
Cahill has long been a world-class finisher, scoring more than 50 goals for both Millwall and Everton during his time in England, but says it’s playing for his country that means the most to him.
“I still know I can change games, I still know I can write my own script and at the same time effect football in Australia in a big way,” he said.
“I’ve never ever once not believed in the national team jersey...and when I get my chance then I have to take it.”
Cahill’s brace on Thursday could not have come a better time for Australia. The Asian Cup hosts had lost their last group and South Korea and were struggling to get the ball past a well-organised Chinese defence, squandering a string of chances despite dominating possession.
“It was a tough game, we knew China would be a very difficult opponent,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said.
“I‘m really proud of the fact the boys stuck to the game plan ... and once Timmy produced his magic, we never looked back.”
For China, it was a bittersweet ending to a tournament where they showed signs of shedding their tag as soccer’s sleeping giant.
China only just scraped into the tournament as the last qualifier but won all their group games and came unstuck only a moment of magic from Cahill.
“If you lose your concentration even for one second it can cause terrible results,” China coach Alain Perrin said.
”Before Cahill scored one of his goals, one of our players fell in the penalty area and our players lost focus on the game.
“My team also tried their best. Of course, they are very disappointed, because it means our journey at the Asian Cup is finished.” (Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)