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(E) The most pulsating, dramatic, heart-stopping contest of a thrilling World Cup
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  06/23/2006 | Sports | Unrated
(E) The most pulsating, dramatic, heart-stopping contest of a thrilling World Cup

Croatia 2 - 2 Australia

GIANNI RUSSO in Stuttgart June 23 2006

Scorers: Croatia – Srna (3), Kovac (56); Australia – Moore (38 pen), Kewell (79)

The most pulsating, dramatic, heart-stopping contest of a thrilling World Cup ended with Australia booking a last 16 meeting with Italy.
Harry Kewell's 79th-minute angled drive sent Guus Hiddink's Australia charging into the knockout phase for the first time in their history.
Yet the mere scoreline does not even start to get close to explaining the story behind a truly extraordinary game which Australia ended with 10 men and Croatia nine.
Twice Australia were forced to come from behind to grab the point they required after conceding initially in the second minute, then at the start of the second period following a mistake to rank up with any the competition had ever seen from recalled goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac.
Yet, showing the pugnacious spirit which has enabled them to become world champions at so many sports, Australia simply refused to lie down.
Craig Moore pulled them level just before half-time when he kept his nerve to fire home from the spot, then, after Australia had another clear spot-kick appeal turned down by the English referee Graham Poll, Kewell drove home the goal which blasted open the door to the second round.
Nobody celebrated the draw more enthusiastically than the Australia coach Guus Hiddink, who had almost seen the biggest gamble of his entire coaching career go disastrously wrong.
Hiddink stunned his supporters by bringing back Kalac, who spends his winters sat on the AC Milan bench, ahead of established No.1 Mark Schwarzer.
Kalac had barely touched the ball when he was picking it out of his own net, a legacy of Mark Viduka's third-minute foul on the Croatia captain Niko Kovac. Up stepped Darijo Srna to stroke a 25-yard free-kick beyond Kalac and into the top corner.
For half an hour thereafter, Australia battered the Croatia defence for no reward. Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka and Kewell all wasted chances to equalise and Australia were starting to run out of ideas when Stjepan Tomas stuck up a fist to deflect away a Brett Emerton cross.
Poll spotted the infringement and, though the gap between the Premiership official blowing his whistle and Moore stepping up to take the kick seemed to last forever, the former Rangers defender kept his cool to fire home.
Then came Kalac's extraordinary aberration. Getting right behind an apparently innocuous Kovac strike, the keeper somehow managed to let the ball slip through his grasp and into the net. With Schwarzer sat not five yards away, Hiddink must have wanted the ground to open up and swallow him.
It was another shattering blow. Yet Australia refused to buckle. Time and again they bashed away.
Another Tomas handball was missed by Poll, Kewell's shot was brilliantly pushed over by Stipe Pletikosa, Cahill went agonisingly close.
Eventually Marco Bresciano floated over a cross from the right and John Aloisi flicked it into Kewell's path. Kewell's talent did not fail him. Control with the chest, finish on the volley. Easy as that.
Australia lived on their nerves for those final 10 minutes, though. Dario Simic and Brett Emerton were both red-carded as the action intensified, while Moore booted on effort off the Australian line.
Amid the frenzy, Poll booked Josip Siminic, a Melbourne-born Croat, for a second and then a third time, before eventually brandishing red in his face after the final whistle.
The Australian fans celebrated as they would any Ashes triumph or rugby victory.
Scorers: Croatia – Srna (3), Kovac (56); Australia – Moore (38 pen), Kewell (79)

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