Coach Graham Arnold insists the Socceroos have improved game-by-game after topping their Asian Cup group despite slipping to a flat 1-1 draw with Uzbekistan.
Australia were already guaranteed to reach the round of 16 but needed a win or draw at Doha’s Al Janoub Stadium to finish top of group B.
Martin Boyle’s spot-kick in the opening minute of first-half injury time, after a dubious handball call on Odiljon Hamrobekov following a VAR review, gave Australia the ascendancy.
But Uzbekistan seized control after the break and equalised when Azizbek Turgunboev leapt over Aziz Behich and headed home in the 78th minute.
It was Uzbekistan’s first goal against Australia in five meetings and ended a run of six consecutive clean sheets for the Socceroos.
A point was enough to seal Australia (seven points) top spot ahead of Uzbekistan (five points).
Syria beat India 1-0 to finish third on four points, ensuring progression as one of the best third-placed finishers while knocking out both India and China, who came third in Group A but cannot now progress.
“We came here at the start of the tournament to top the group and we’ve got the job done,” Arnold said.
“And it’s the most important thing. And we move forward now one game at a time and see who our next opponent is.”
Australia won’t learn the opponent for their round-of-16 match, to be held at 10.30pm AEDT Sunday, until group matches are finished on Wednesday night AEDT.
But they will play either the best third-placed team from either group C (likely Palestine) or group D (likely Indonesia but potentially Japan).
The Socceroos will also set to be on the opposite side of the draw to tournament favourites Japan, if the Blue Samurai finish second in group D.
But there is plenty for Arnold to address, with Australia’s struggles to break down a defence, lack of creativity and a second-half fadeout among the concerns.
“Overall, we’re getting better as we go,” Arnold said.
“What some people don’t understand is we have four players here that have had Asian Cup experience.
“And in this squad of 26, we only have 12 players that were here in Qatar for the World Cup. So I’m blending and gelling a new squad together.
“Of course we can do things better.
“But when you’ve only had them for about two, three weeks to get them sorted out and we’ve got to play games as well, it’s always about that culture and commitment the boys give that is very, very good.”
Arnold hailed the “outstanding” Kusini Yengi, who made his first start as striker, replacing the injured Mitch Duke (hamstring).
Yengi was among five changes, while attacker Riley McGree made his first start of the tournament.
Umar Eshmurodov was arguably lucky to stay on the field when he brought down Boyle in the 25th minute with the striker clear to run on goal, but only received a yellow card.
Australia should have scored in the 42nd minute when Yengi went on a wonderful weaving run through Uzbekistan’s defence and cut the ball back for McGree, who inexplicably shot wide.
But luck was in Australia’s favour.
During Yengi’s run, the ball flicked off Hamrobekov’s arm, which he was using to brace his fall, then back into the striker’s path.
After a lengthy VAR review, Hamrobekov was penalised and booked and Boyle drilled the penalty into the bottom corner.
But Uzbekistan would not be denied and earned a deserved goal when Turgunboev brilliantly buried a wonderful dipping cross from Jaloliddin Masharipov.