Australia, Iraq, Oman and Thailand have been drawn in Group A based in Bangkok.
The Socceroos celebrate a late escape after Oman
Tim Cahill, Australian midfielder, scored a late goal to salvage a valuable point for the Socceroos, saving them from the ignominy of a humiliating defeat to Oman in their inaugural Asian Cup match in Bangkok on Sunday.
The tournament favourites needed an injury-time strike from the Everton star to snatch a 1-1 draw in driving rain at the Rajamangala National Stadium in their first continental campaign after Badar Mubarak had scored a first half goal for Oman.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold admitted his star-studded side had been lucky.
“I’m relieved and distressed. We just got out of jail,” Arnold said.
“It shows how difficult Asia is. It shows that we need to push ourselves to the limit.”
Arnold said his team were exhausted by the heat and humidity, but praised them for never giving up.
“Some players lost four or five kilos out there, but they gave it everything. The players are dead,” he added.
“But I’m still confident everything will be fine.”
The Gulf nation, ranked 74 and playing against the Australians for the first time, frustrated their 48th-ranked opponents and stoically protected their 32nd-minute lead by packing their defence and using questionable injury-feigning tactics.
Playing in the heat and humidity of Bangkok, and in front of a paltry crowd in a 60,000-capacity stadium, the Aussies, who reached the second round of last year’s World Cup, threw everything at Oman in the second half before Cahill’s last gasp equaliser.
Cahill brought back memories of his late intervention to help Australia beat Japan at Germany 2006 with his 90th minute volley bringing relief to the Socceroos camp after a frustrating match.
Oman stunned their more fancied opponents with a shock 32nd-minute lead through Mubarak and the task became harder for the Socceroos when a tropical downpour drenched the stadium in the closing 15 minutes.
Mubarak finished off great work on the left by Imad Ali who found his teammate in space with the Australian defence pulled out of shape.
The striker smashed his shot home past Mark Schwarzer’s right hand and the Oman team celebrated by grouping in front of a contingent of Australian fans and orchestrating Muslim prayers to the sound of the crowd’s boos.
Oman players celebrate Badar Mubarak’s
Oman’s tactics became obvious after the goal with players going to ground for treatment at every opportunity and forcing referee Eddy Maillet to constantly stop the game.
While the Australians brought on second-half substitutes John Aloisi, Cahill and Brett Holman in a bid to turn the match around, Schwarzer was the hero when he pulled off two excellent saves to keep his side in the match.
Liverpool star Harry Kewell was involved a great deal early, but struggled in the humid conditions with his touch letting him down, while skipper Mark Viduka was rarely a scoring threat.
Gabriel Calderon, Oman’s Argentine coach, felt his side deserved better after leading for most of the match.
“Of course I am disappointed because I thought Oman was the best team and we should have won,” Calderon said.
“It was a very technical match, Australia are very tough.”
The Argentinian likened the match to a cup final, and said Oman’s remaining two group matches would be treated in the same way.
“For Oman, we are playing three finals. Today was number one and Thailand and Iraq will be two and three,” he said.
All teams in Group A are now on equal points after Thailand and Iraq also drew 1-1 in the opening match of the tournament on Saturday.
Oman will take on joint-hosts Thailand in Bangkok on July 12, while Australia will next play Iraq on July 13.