Tim Cahill magic papers over Socceroo cracks in World Cup playoffs
His header looped into the top left corner to give Australia victory over Syria, and Tim Cahill's mind raced back to a June afternoon in Kaiserslautern more than 11 years ago.
Just like the Japan game at Germany 2006, Cahill had scored his second goal to rescue the Socceroos from an unthinkable plight. It secured a 2-1 comeback victory for a 3-2 win on aggregate at Sydney's ANZ Stadium.
More than a decade ago, Cahill also helped Australia come from behind to record their first-ever World Cup finals' victory in that opening group game in Germany. This time, it was an extra time header that saw them overcome a stubborn and courageous Syria side to set up a November meeting over two legs with Honduras.
In 2006, Cahill was only into his third year of international football, overshadowed by the likes of Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka. But, today, as he aims for his fourth consecutive World Cup, he's more than a decade older than most of his teammates. He will turn 38 in December, a month after Australia's next playoff on the road to Russia 2018.
Having hauled Australia back into the game after they had fallen behind early with a 13th-minute header, Cahill struck again in the 109th minute. Aaron Mooy had sent the ball wide to Robbie Kruse whose first-time, left-footed cross was eaten up by the former Everton midfielder.
"I felt great. It was like 2006 World Cup when I scored against Japan and I ran around and all the boys just mobbed me," Cahill told ESPN FC.
"It was one of those feelings. You get deja vu. I kept saying to Krusie: 'Don't even look, just cross it' ... I pushed these [Syria] boys so far back to create room for the No. 10's. I was trying to create havoc there. You've just got to wait."
Unlike the times he's scored in three World Cups, including that brace against Japan, there was no boxing corner-flag celebration from Cahill who took his record tally to 50 goals in 103 appearances. Having not played in last Thursday's drawn first leg in Malaysia, nor featured in the A-League so far this season, it was a risk by coach Ange Postecoglou to stick with him when the match went into extra time.
"I waited long enough and the boss ... he knew ... he left me out there," Cahill said. "He knew that I was fit enough. I might not have played in a while, but I felt fit and I felt I contributed well to the team, so it was awesome.
"I think for me I'm just determined to play. I'm 37 and a lot of people talk about my age, and tonight if you don't do well they're probably asking for me to step aside.
"But it's just a number and it's about being professional. It's a responsibility for me I feel to produce on the big stage consistently and that's what I've done my whole career. I'm just proud."
Cahill's heroics papered over the cracks of another unconvincing performance from the Socceroos, who haven't played well since holding South American champions Chile to a 1-1 draw in June's Confederations Cup in Russia.
The fact that Syria pushed them so close -- the 10-man visitors were desperately unlucky not to progress on away goals before Omar Al Soma's late free kick hit the post -- shows that the reigning Asian champions have a lot of work to do before next month's inter-confederation playoff.
Take Cahill out of the equation, and the Socceroos have few weapons to worry quality international opposition, despite a majority of possession. When Mooy entered the fray after Brad Smith's early injury, the home side were effectively playing with three No. 10s -- Mooy, Tom Rogic and James Troisi -- but didn't create many clear-cut chances.
Speculation over Postecoglou's future won't help, but he will take some encouragement from the fact that it was probably Mooy and Rogic's best game yet in tandem. Yet, there's a lingering feeling that the pair are a little like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard with England -- they are excellent individually but not so effective as a pair.
Australia are also over-reliant on Mark Milligan, who took a heavy knock in the first leg in Malaysia last Thursday, and wasn't at his best in Sydney, giving the ball away for Syria's early goal. Like Cahill, Milligan was a member of the 2006 World Cup squad in Germany, and captains the team in the absence of fellow central midfielder Mile Jedinak.
Milligan, 32, will be suspended for the first leg of the playoff against Honduras, which could open the door for the likes of Mustafa Amini and Massimo Luongo, although both are quite different players to the Melbourne Victory hard man.
And, despite his lack of football at club level, Trent Sainsbury remains the national team's most important defender, playing in the middle of a back three. Heaven knows what would happen if the former Central Coast favourite was struck down by injury or suspension, with the Socceroos' centre-back stocks surprisingly thin.
The bubbling optimism about Australia's playing depth that came after the Asian Cup win less than three years ago has now disappeared. Suddenly, there seems to be a lack of quality forwards and defenders. And while there is an abundance of midfielders, too few of them are scoring goals and consistently making a difference.
So, by all means celebrate the remarkable Timothy Filiga Cahill, but let's not get carried away. Unless there's a marked improvement across the whole team, unconvincing Australia will lose to Honduras and won't be going to a fourth-consecutive World Cup finals.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.