Cahill guides Australia to group summit

MELBOURNE - Australia came from behind to beat Japan 2-1 with a second-half double from Tim Cahill on Wednesday to finish top of Asian World Cup qualifying Group One. Both countries had already reached the 2010 finals in South Africa with their last qualifier, played out by second-string teams, deciding who would take the plaudits in the group.

Cahill struck just before the hour and in the 77th minute after Japan's Brazilian-born defender Tulio ended Australia's seven-game streak of clean sheets with a header in the 40th.

The result left Australia on top of the group with 20 points, five more than Japan. They conceded only one goal in eight matches and were unbeaten in their final round of qualifying.

"I think it's a great statement to the rest of Asia and probably the rest of the world that you can finish a campaign like this five points ahead," Australia coach Pim Verbeek told reporters.

"We did not lose one game. We got one goal (against us). Can't have it all, but I think it's fantastic and I'm very proud of the players."

CAUGHT NAPPING

On a cold evening in front of a crowd of more than 70,000 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Australia pushed hard for an early goal, with chances for midfielder Mile Sterjovski and Cahill going begging in the opening minutes.

But it was the Blue Samurai who drew first blood five minutes before the break, when Tulio soared above a defence caught napping to head a corner kick from Kengo Nakamura into the bottom right-hand side of the net.

Japan carried the momentum into the second half, with speedy midfielder Daisuke Matsui proving a handful for the Australian defence but they were unable to press the advantage.

Cahill turned the match in the 59th minute, however, leaping above Tulio on the left side of the penalty box to head a long-range Vince Grella free kick over keeper Seigo Narazaki.

His right leg then found a floating cross from Nicky Carle in the 77th minute in almost the same spot, the volley putting Australia 2-1 up and triggering thunderous cheers from home fans.

"He's so dangerous in the penalty box ... It's fantastic for the team to have a player like that, that you know he can always do what he has to do - score goals," Verbeek said.

Cahill's brace will have brought back painful memories for Japan fans who saw the attacking midfielder score two late goals to help Australia clinch a rousing 3-1 comeback victory in their group match at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.