And then there were eight. The Socceroos shootout triumph over Uzbekistan on Tuesday morning (AEDT) has earned Graham Arnold’s side a thrilling Quarter Final shot at hosts United Arab Emirates in the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019™.
On another day, Australia’s attacking philosophy - which brought six goals in the group stage - would surely have paid dividends, with more than 60% of possession and 17 shots seeing them through in the regulation 90 minutes.
But a combination of good defending and a fine performance from Uzbek goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov led to a nerve-shredding shootout that made standout stars of Mat Ryan and a fit-again Mathew Leckie, who netted the vital winning spot-kick.
Now the Socceroos’ attention turns to the hosts, who reached the last eight courtesy of a 3-2 win over the Kyrgyz Republic on Tuesday morning (AEDT).
DOWNLOAD: Official Socceroos AFC Asian Cup wallpaper
READ: Shootout star Ryan reflects on his 'Schwarzer moment'
LECKIE: 'I've never hit a penalty that good'
MILLIGAN: Leckie's return 'adds new dimension'
DEGENEK: 'I've never seen anyone do that. I was amazed'
GIANNOU: Penalty preparation paid off
GALLERY: Leckie and Ryan the heroes for Socceroos against Uzbekistan
Having finished the group stage with confidence-boosting wins over Palestine (3-0) and a dogged Syria (3-2), Australia faced another free-scoring side in Uzbekistan in the Round of 16.
In the event, two of the highest scoring sides in the competition battled out an absorbing 0-0 draw, before two fine saves from Mat Ryan paved the way for a 4-2 win in the shootout, capped by Leckie’s decisive spot-kick.
There is sure to be a full house at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain, as the host nation face the Socceroos, but belief is running high for the Green and Gold.
The Socceroos reported a clean bill of health after the tense victory over Uzbekistan, but will go into the Quarter Final without playmaker Tom Rogic, who picked up his second yellow card of the tournament in the Round of 16 match.
Mat Leckie returned from a hamstring injury to make his first appearance at this year’s Asian Cup in the last round, and his presence added a spark to Australia’s forward play.
The winger, who plays his club football in Germany with Hertha Berlin, played for almost an hour against Uzbekistan, and was a calm presence as he fired home the crucial spot-kick to take the Socceroos through to the last eight. He is likely to figure in Graham Arnold’s plans as the manager looks to outsmart the UAE.
The dependable Mark Milligan has been outstanding so far, and led the way by scoring Australia’s first in the shootout.
Confidence will be high for forwards Robbie Kruse and Apostolos Giannou, who were also on target from 12 yards, while further good news for Arnold’s striking options comes with the revelation that Andrew Nabbout is recovering well from a groin problem.
Elsewhere, Josh Risdon - who went off at half-time with a groin injury in the tournament’s opening match against Jordan - is available again after being named among the substitutes against Uzbekistan in the last round.
Current AFC rankings
United Arab Emirates: 8
What they said
Captain Mark Milligan
“[Playing against the host nation] will suit our boys, they’re quite used to playing in front of a lot of people. I think that atmosphere, while it might be hostile will give us a bit of extra drive and extra go in the match.
“It’s a funny thing. Before the match you know [the crowd support] is not there for you, but during the match it’s just noise.
“If you are able to focus on the match and channel that, it can definitely be helpful.
“We know we’ll have our little pocket of family and friends that have come over to support us. It’s a nice little stadium and I think the conditions will suit us.”
Defender Milos Degenek
“It was two years ago we played the [UAE in a FIFA World Cup] qualifier in Abu Dhabi. We had quite a big crowd here, it was 41 degrees and Timmy [Cahill] ended up scoring [in a 1-0 win].
“It will be a very nice atmosphere, it will be a nice game, beautiful stadium, beautiful pitch.
“It’s a big game, a very important game that gets you through to the Semi Finals.
“We’re all going to be pumped and psyched for that and we’re going to prepare well.”
How to watch
The Socceroos get underway against UAE at 3:00am (AEDT) on Saturday and you can catch all the action live on FOX SPORTS 505.
Fans also have the chance to watch every game of AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019™ via Kayo Sports. You can sign up for a free 14-day trial here.
And we will be bringing you all the colour, key updates and goal videos from Al Ain in our live match blog on www.socceroos.com.au.