In the end, it was all for nothing. A pulsating match in Nelspruit saw both Australia and Serbia eliminated but a remarkable turnaround from the Socceroos after their disastrous opening game with Germany. As it turned out, Australia went out on goal difference thanks to that result and a probable tactical error by their coach, the Dutchman Pim Verbeek, back in Durban. Verbeek now leaves the team to oversee Morocco's youth set up.
"I'm just disappointed we don't go through," said Verbeek. "We have four points, I thought it might be enough. In the end the goal difference against Germany killed us."
The opening minutes saw Milos Krasic break into Australia's penalty area and have his shirt pulled by Carl Valeri. New Zealand conceded a penalty in the same stadium for the same offence against Italy but, this time, their antipodean cousins were more lucky. Still, for the remaining 43 minutes of the half, the large contingent of Australia supporters loudly booed every Krasic touch. There would be many of them.In the 12th minute, Milos Krasic found himself one-on-one with Mark Schwarzer but the Fulham goalkeeper's pace coming off his line pushed the Serbian wide and away from danger. Australia often conceded space in midfield, a crime for a Dutch-coached team, and Serbia rarely gave the ball away. The Europeans continued to create chances, attacking the Australian flanks as Germany had done so convincingly 10 days earlier.Smoke from nearby veld fires seeped across the Mbombela Stadium but it was Australia that sparked in the second half after a tense opening 45 minutes. The game turned when Verbeek introduced an energetic Brett Holman and Scott Chipperfield.
• Follow the Guardian's World Cup team on Twitter• Sign up to play our great Fantasy Football game• Stats centre: Get the lowdown on every player• The latest team-by-team news, features and more Australia suddenly grasped control of the midfield and in the 69th minute, as news came through of Germany's 1-0 lead against Ghana, Everton's Tim Cahill climbed above Serbia's defence to head Australia into the lead.
Much maligned during Australia's qualifying campaign for his supposed wastefulness Holman unleashed a 73rd-minute rocket to leave Vladimir Stojkovic floundering to his right. Serbia were stunned but desperate for three points and the game opened up. But with Australia possibly destined to pull off a miracle, Zoran Tosic shot, Schwarzer spilled and Marko Pantelic hit home the rebound.
Before the match, Lucas Neill had defended his team from accusations of Aussie "whinging" – by the press and their own FA's chairman – concerned about decisions going against his team. The apparent evidence was Cahill's red card against Germany and Harry Kewell's similarly punished goalline handball against Ghana.
This time, the Australians did get the favourable decision. In the dying minutes, Cahill rose for a header – in his own area. The ball struck his hand and Serbia should have received a penalty, perhaps a goal, and qualification for the last 16. But the referee, Jorge Larrionda, was Australia's friend.
"You see guys who will play their hearts out and run all day and then others come on and do the same thing," Cahill said, reflecting on what might have been and Australia's early exit. "We have a team that works together and the team is fantastic."
This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.