Australia manager Graham Arnold praised the character of his players as the Socceroos held their nerve in a penalty shoot-out against Uzbekistan to clinch a place in the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup.
The defending champions prevailed 4-2 on penalties with neither side able to break the deadlock over 120 minutes of normal and extra time at the Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain.
Goalkeeper Mat Ryan successfully saved two Uzbek attempts before Mathew Leckie hammered home the decisive spot kick to send Australia through to the last eight.
“It was a very tough game, obviously,” Arnold told reporters. “You have to give credit to Uzbekistan, who fought hard and made it difficult for us by defending so deep. We certainly didn’t expect that they would defend so deep.
“They had a lot of numbers behind the ball but our boys stuck to their game. They worked extremely hard and I’m impressed by this new team. They showed great calmness under the type of pressure.
“We had around 930 passes in the game and obviously not just to keep possession but creating opportunities. You have to give credit to Uzbekistan and we’ll learn from this.”
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Ryan, one of the few remaining members of the Australia side that clinched the Asian Cup on home soil four years ago, hardly had a save to make over 120 minutes of action as Uzbekistan's cautious approach limited them to shots from range.
However, the Brighton & Hove Albion goalkeeper was alert when faced with the opposition from only 12 yards out, denying Islom Tukhthakhujaev and Marat Bikmaev.
“Maty probably had a lot of energy left in the shoot-out because he had only one shot at [his] goal in 120 minutes,” Arnold said.
“Mat does a lot of homework by himself and when he goes to the games he ticks all boxes.”
Ryan was called into action 10 minutes into the game as Eldor Shomurodov burst past Trent Sainsbury to force the goalkeeper to block his close-range shot.
Australia carried little threat, with Aziz Behich registering his side's only attempt on goal in the opening 45 minutes when he tried his luck from outside the area, but Ignatiy Nesterov had few problems.
Javokhir Sidikov flashed his long-range attempt narrowly wide of Ryan's goal and Khamdamov should have done better when he was found by Shomurodov with time and space.
The Socceroos pressed in the second half, with Rhyan Grant heading over from an acute angle when Milos Degenek's diagonal ball found him unmarked behind the Uzbekistan defence having moments earlier sent another header into the hands of Nesterov.
Uzbekistan's goalkeeper was now seeing all the action, and he was forced to deny Leckie nine minutes after the Hertha Berlin winger came off the bench before pushing Tom Rogic's deflected strike from outside the area wide for a corner.
In the shoot-out, Behich saw his penalty saved by Nesterov before Tukhtakhujaev's attempt was kept out by Ryan, and the Australia keeper denied Khamdamov in the penultimate round to leave Leckie to confirm the win.
Hector Cuper, the losing manager, said he was proud of his charges after losing out in the lottery of
“My players did everything possible on the pitch and there’s nothing to blame on them, and I’m not looking for any excuses for this defeat,” said the Argentine.
“The only thing I didn’t like for the entire match was the first 15 minutes of the second half when we were flat. Let’s also face the fact we faced one of the best teams in Asia, and in general I’m content with the game.
“I like the discipline my team showed on the pitch. Of course we had a lot of expectations but it had to end like this. When you go for a penalty shoot-out it’s hard to predict.”
Australia will next face either hosts UAE or Kyrgyzstan on Friday for a place in the semi-finals.