Olyroos book ticket to Athens

AUCKLAND: Ryan Griffiths' late equaliser which earned the Olyroos a 1-1 draw against New Zealand at North Harbour Stadium last night, was enough to book Australia's ticket to Athens courtesy of a 3-1 aggregate.

It was a flattering draw for the Olyroos who went into this deciding leg of the OFC Men's Olympic Qualifiers with a two goal advantage after easily beating their New Zealand counterparts, the OlyWhites in the first leg match in Sydney.
But it was a different storyline this time. New Zealand was desperately unlucky not to win a game they fully deserved to take out, judging by the numerous scoring opportunities they created.

Coach Ricki Herbert had obviously done his homework from the Sydney encounter and had the boys fired up from the start. This time, they had the Australian defence stretched with a more varied attacking approach moving the ball quickly to their forwards and penetrating more on the flanks. It was a far cry from the conservative effort on Monday when they were content to send forward long balls all day which the organised Olyroos gobbled up with ease.

It seemed a matter time before the OlyWhites would score after the numerous chances created in the first half. And their persistence was rewarded after half-time in the 51st minute when Shane Smeltz scored after a scorching run down the right flank by Leo Bertos, arguably New Zealand's best player on the night.

Bertos had shaken off Olyroo defender Shane Cansdell-Sherriff after receiving a pass then spun around and sped off down towards the right corner flag before crossing in to Smeltz who was wonderfully positioned by the far post to slot the ball past Australian goalkeeper Eugen Josip Galekovic. Olyroos coach Frank Farina reacted by subbing off striker Brett Holman for Dylan Macallistar.

With half and hour remaining the Olywhites had the Australians reeling and had a golden chance to put the nail in. New Zealand should have scored their second goal which would have sent the game into extra-time after Bertos and Brent Fisher combined beautifully to cross into the lanky Neil Jones who was open from five yards out. But his downward header hit the ground and bounced over the beaten Galekovic and over the cross-bar. The Olyroos breathed again.

But after holding the Australians to a scoreless first half, creating more shots on goal and with their heads high after Smeltz's goal, a touch of brilliance in the 71st minute against the run of play caught the New Zealand defence napping for a brief moment and within seconds the game was effectively killed off.

Ahmad Elrich who had been anonymous on the right side for Australia for much of the game delivered a perfect through ball to a flying Griffiths who had earlier come on for brilliant left wing Alex Brosque just after the break. He outpaced Olywhites defender Rupesh Puna and slotted the ball past the outstretched Glen Moss who was sluggish in reacting to the pass. The outplayed Australians suddenly came to life celebrating the crucial away goal and from there they seemed to rediscover their touch.

At 1-1, the heads began to sink in the New Zealand camp but the near 3,000 spectators refused to concede defeat and urged on the home side even though the task was almost insurmountable needing three goals with just minutes remaining. But stuck to the task the Olywhites did.

Timothy Brown, replacement striker Allan Pearce and Brent Fisher came close in the dying moments in the game but their shots on goal were inaccurate and wide of the mark. Australia almost snatched victory at the end when they broke free on a counter attacking run after a New Zealand corner. However, Dylan Macallistar `s flying header did not do justice to Carle's sweet cross from the right side, and it flew harmlessly over the cross-bar.

Seconds later, Fijian referee Leone Rakaroi called time. The Australian bench erupted in celebration as they realised their goal to qualify for the Athens Olympics in August had finally been realised.

For New Zealand, they put up a brave fight and could feel hard done by to walk away with only a draw to reflect their dominance. While the statistics were even, New Zealand had the more clear-cut chances but they failed to finish them off. They had thrown everything at the Australians after succumbing 2-0 in the first leg in Sydney and gave the spectators their moneys worth with their positive attitude.

The central defence pairing of captain, Steven Old and Andrew Boyens were superb in Auckland and they effectively shut out the dangerous Nick Carle and Brett Holman in the first stanza. Carle gave New Zealand some nervous moments in the early moments of the first half but once the home side had settled he was kept quiet, as was Australian danger man Alex Brosque. Puna did a good job to deny him any quality ball. Brosque showed just how highly regarded he is with the few chances he did get when his solo run in the 30th minute almost gave Australia the lead. But his attempt was wide and no threat to Moss. He was subbed off shortly after Smeltz' goal.

Leo Bertos was a constant threat to the Australians every time he touched the ball and he combined well with his front men of Smeltz, Jones and Fisher, as did David Mulligan on the left wing. The front three had plenty of chances but their shots on goal were mostly wide of the mark.

Often crosses and passes were astray ruining other scoring chances. But by and large, it was a much more positive effort and a marked improvement from the first leg. Several players would have done their chances of an All Whites call-up for the upcoming OFC Nations Cup/World Cup qualifiers a world of good.

Australia finished the game confidently and was in control during the latter stages of the match after Griffiths' goal.

It was the second consecutive time Australia had turned the game with a goal from a replacement. Jon McKain came on for injured captain Ljubo Milicevic in the first leg match to score the vital goal which led to an Australian victory and Griffiths did likewise to quieten the New Zealanders.

The tone of the game was tough and uncompromising, which was expected with a place in Athens at stake, but largely played in good spirits aside from a flare up of players in the second half which saw Olyroos captain, Luke Wilkshire and Timothy Brown dished out yellow cards, just moments after Jones' missed header.

Afterwards, a calm, composed Australian coach Frank Farina entered the press conference room with a subdued, tired looking Griffiths - a scene in contrast to the joyous echoes from the Australian changing room audible through the corridor outside the entrance.
"We did the job we came here to do," he said.
"I felt confident we could score a goal which we did and we should have won it at the end."

Farina was not ready to make predictions on how the team would go in Athens but he did pay tribute to his players for showing character to come back after admitting they had "panicked" for much of the game due to the pressure of the occasion.

Herbert was pleased at the effort from his charges but singled out the missed goal by Jones as an opportunity missed for his team and the turning moment of the game


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