MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia’s hopes of a direct ticket to the World Cup remained alive after a tense 2-1 win over Thailand on Tuesday but the Socceroos now face a nervous wait for the outcome of the Saudi Arabia qualifier against Japan.
Desperate for a goal-fest but frustrated by the woodwork three times, Australia had to rely on an 86th-minute winner from Mathew Leckie to break the deadlock after Pokklaw Anan stunned the home side four minutes earlier against the run of play.
Saudi Arabia are three points behind the second-placed Socceroos in Asia’s group B with a game in hand but are superior on goal difference and can qualify for Russia with a single-goal win over Japan in Jeddah later on Tuesday.
The top two teams seal automatic berths to next year’s finals in Russia, with the third-placed side needing to enter playoffs. Japan have already qualified with their 2-0 win over Australia last week.
Australia coach Ange Postecoglou was downcast after the Socceroos hammered 45 shots at goal in front of 26,000 fans at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium but emerged with only second-half goals for Leckie and striker Tomi Juric.
“If there was ever a more one-sided contest I’ve never seen one,” Postecoglou said at the post-match media conference.
“It’s heartbreaking for the players... (The shots) just didn’t go in. I thought they didn’t get their rewards tonight.”
Midfielder Aaron Mooy, a late withdrawal before the 2-0 defeat against Japan, was reinstated in the starting lineup with the nation’s most prolific scorer Tim Cahill starting alongside Juric.
Despite dominating possession, the Socceroos were unable to find the back of the net until deep into the second half.
Six minutes in, an unmarked Mooy fired a low shot from inside the area and grazed the outside of the right post before Cahill hammered into the left post from straight out in front.
Australia’s frustration appeared finally set to end five minutes before the break when Leckie floated a delightful lofted cross into the path of Juric, but the striker’s volley was blocked by a desperate outstretched leg.
Although conceding the height advantage and regularly outmuscled, the Thais stuck doggedly to their task.
They gave the home fans a huge scare seven minutes into the second period when unmarked captain Teerasil Dangda streamed towards goal before being brought down from behind in a sliding tackle by Trent Sainsbury.
Australia appeared fortunate to escape a penalty, with Dangda tumbling over in the area.
Juric finally opened the scoring by nodding in a header in the 69th minute after a cross from Mooy but it was no trigger to a glut of goals.
Instead Pokklaw ensured a nerve-jangling finish by firing in off the crossbar some 13 minutes later.
Leckie slammed in a left-foot shot through a crowded box to save the Socceroos blushes but the tight win was of little relief to Postecoglou, who betrayed his frustration when asked about the Socceroos’ final phase of qualifying.
“I’ve been sitting here frustrated for the last two years listening to some of the garbage being thrown at these players,” he fumed.
“It’s tough qualifying for a World Cup... They’ve done everything I’ve asked them.”
Editing by Clare Fallon