Despite once again not putting in an at all convincing performance, Australia have progressed to the quarterfinals of the AFC U23 Championships after riding a Ramy Najjarine goal to a 1-1 draw with Bahrain.
Following on from a madcap 2-1 win over Thailand, in which the Head Coach Graham Arnold’s side somehow went into halftime level at 1-1 before running over the top of the host nation in the second half, hopes had been high in the Australian camp that the momentum from that game would carry over to the meeting with Al-Ahmar.
Opening fireworks, disappointingly, were not forthcoming.
Instead, the opening stages of the contest were defined by their maddening mundanity as neither side attempted to push the envelope. Instead, both XIs seemed more focused on settling into their self-assigned roles – Australia dominating the ball and Bahrain content to soak up pressure and wait for an opening.
The Olyroos’ first clear chance came in the 25th minute when, springing forward on the counter, Daniel Bouman and Gabriel Cleur combined to create enough room on the right for the former to drive a low cross to the top of the six-yard-box.
Eagerly waiting for it was Al Hassan Toure, with only a desperate lunge from a scrambling defender denying the Adelaide United striker a close-range shot.
The best chance of the first half an hour, however, belonged to the Bahrainis.
Sending a corner into the area in the 29th minute, a failed clearance by the Australians saw the ball fall at the feet of Ahmed Sanad just outside the penalty area.
The ball promptly put into back into the mixer, it was flicked onward and upward by Sayed Ameen and into the bath of Ahmed Bughammar but, fortunately for Australia, his subsequent header that should have given Bahrain the lead was over the bar.
As is wont to happen in football, the Australians, gifted a reprieve, then punished their foes – doing so in a manner that would have been very familiar to fans of Sydney FC.
Getting to a 50/50 contest first, Keanu Baccus – who had up to that point been uninspiring – knocked a pass forward and to the feet of Reno Piscopo.
Turning his body and advancing goalward, the Wellington Phoenix attacker then bucked conservative play that had characterised the Olyroos game to that point when he – Miloš Ninković style – threaded an inch-perfect pass between a sea of Bahraini shirts and into the path of Najjarine, who promptly collected and slid an effort home.
Yet Australia was unable to hold their lead.
Already fortunate to escape when a close-range header from Mohamed Abdulrahman was denied by Glover in the first minute of first-half stoppage time, a calamitous error from the back four after they stopped awaiting an offside call and, when none was forthcoming, forced Tass Mourdoukoutas to concede a needless and dangerously placed foul occurred deep into extras.
Stepping up to take the set-piece, Mohamed Marhoon curled a low, swinging effort around the Australian wall and beat an out-of-position Glover to deservedly make the scoreline 1-1.
Getting on the end of a ball sliced through the defence by Najjarine, Bouman attempted to drag a ball back across the face of goal and into the path of Toure in the 59th minute, only for the defence to once again clear the danger.
Duelling long-range efforts from both sides followed before a free-kick won in a dangerous area by Najjarine was sent over the bar by Piscopo in the 67th.