Jackson Irvine and Mathew Leckie headed home corners as Australia got their World Cup qualifying campaign back on track with a 2-0 victory over the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, ending a run of four successive draws.
Jackson struck in the seventh minute and Leckie added the second 12 minutes from time to send the 27,328 fans at the Sydney Football Stadium home happy despite a far from convincing display from Ange Postecoglou’s side.
The win sent the Socceroos joint top of Asian qualifying Group B on 13 points from seven matches before the other group leaders, Japan and Saudi Arabia, host Thailand and Iraq respectively later on Tuesday.
The top two from the group qualify directly for next year’s finals with the third-placed team offered an alternative route to Russia via two playoffs.
“It was just about remaining calm and taking our chances,” said Australia skipper Mile Jedinak.
“It really helps our chances (of qualifying) but there’s plenty of business to be done.”
The UAE opened their campaign with a stunning win over Japan in Saitama but a fourth loss since means they are now four points behind the leading trio and clinging to slim hopes of claiming third place.
As Asian champions, Australia were favoured to grab one of the two automatic spots to reach their fourth straight World Cup but their inability to score from open play had cost them dear.
They got the best possible start on Tuesday when James Troisi swung in the first corner of the match and Irvine got up well to head the ball off the chest of a defender and into the net.
Postecoglou stuck with the tactical switch to wing backs he introduced in last week’s 1-1 draw away to Iraq and the players were still clearly struggling to find a rhythm in the unfamiliar formation.
They dominated possession but gave the ball away too frequently and the deft skills of UAE midfielder Omar Abdulrahman were always a threat.
The Asian Player of the Year drew a brilliant save out of Australia goalkeeper Mat Ryan from a free kick in the 17th minute and was constantly probing for openings.
Despite the dominance of the hosts, the longer the match went on without a second goal, the more nervous the crowd became.
Talismanic Socceroos striker Tim Cahill came on to huge applause with 20 minutes remaining and the home side immediately looked more energetic.
Playmaker Troisi blasted a decent chance over the bar after good work down the right flank by Leckie and Irvine nearly added a second goal from another header.
Troisi swung in the ensuing corner, however, and Leckie rose above the defence to make the victory safe.