The Socceroos needing only the draw to go through twice came back from a goal down to keep Dutch coach Guus Hiddink’s miraculous World Cup run alive.
The goal that sent Croatia home came in the 79th minute when Liverpool midfielder Harry Kewell was on hand to smash a flick on from striker John Aloisi into the back of the net after Parma midfielder Marco Bresciano had floated the ball into the box.
It prompted a chaotic ending to the game with three players being sent from the field.
However the third player, Australian born Croatian defender Josip Simunic should have left the field minutes earlier than he did, after English referee Graham Poll didn't notice that he had already awarded the Hertha Berlin player a second yellow card earlier.
The former Australian Institute of Sport graduate had the strange honour of being the first player to receive three yellow cards in a match, although it seemed to offer little consolation as his forlorn figure lay prostrate on the field at full time.
Australia’s Brett Emerton and Croatia’s Dario Simic were the other players given their marching orders, however they did so with the standard two yellow cards.
Blackburn Rovers' Emerton will now miss Australia’s next match.
The Europeans looked set to go through when Australian goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac, who had been a surprise selection for the match, had an absolute clanger by fumbling a tame shot from Croatian captain Niko Kovac over the line.
Onward and upward
What should have been a regulation save seemed to have handed the match to the Croatians and no one would have celebrated Kewell’s equaliser more than Kalac.
It had been the second time Zlatko Krancjar’s men had taken the lead, the first time after just three minutes when Darijo Srna made amends for his penalty miss against Japan by driving his free kick into the Australian net.
The semi finalists of the 1998 World Cup seemed composed in defence and had their opponents needing to settle for long range efforts.
However the whole complexion of the game changed when replacement defender Stjepan Tomas, who was in the side due to the absence of the suspended Robert Kovac, handled the ball in the area to have referee Poll pointing to the spot.
Up stepped former captain and central defender Craig Moore whose powerful finish put his side back in the driver’s seat.
It was only the New South Wales born player’s third goal for his country, but few have been more important.
Again the pendulum swung with the team in the red and white check pouring forward, however their undoing came in their willingness to concede territory once they had the lead.
Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka:
Brothers in arms
Australia will now play Italy in Kaiserslautern on Monday, no doubt with a newly enthusiastic population of football fans setting their alarms or staying up late back home.
Croatia will look back on a number of spurned chances that fell their way in all three games and perhaps rue being so happy to sit on the one goal lead not once, but twice in the decisive third game.