IT was fight Australian supporters were after. A win was a bonus. Unlikely qualification even more so.
In the end, the Socceroos passed the first two with flying colours. As Meatloaf sang; two out of three ain’t bad.
The signs had been there pre-game.
Confidence had flowed back into the Australian camp after the stoic 1-1 draw with Ghana. Australia was done playing the victim.
It was hard not to stop the hairs rising on the back of the neck when the Socceroos lent their voices to the national anthem before kick-off, with thousands in the stadium providing back-up vocals.
Tim Cahill genuflects before each game, but was there something more about the way he did it in the moments before? Probably it was hope, but most living rooms in Australia would have thought so.
Not that the result looked like going Australia’s way in the first half. Serbia pushed and probed Australia when it had the ball, and harassed the Socceroos into mistakes or long balls when it didn’t.
Serbian coach Radomir Antic had clearly done his homework. Ghana had pinpointed a weakness down David Carney’s right flank in the previous game, and Serbia took the same route.
Faced with a marauding and occasionally theatrical Milos Krasic, Carney was targeted time and again in the first half.
But the Socceroos defence – led by skipper Lucas Neill, in vintage 2006 form – held strong with a combination of first-rate awareness, concentrated discipline and a dash of good fortune.
After a first half which belonged firmly to the Serbians, coach Pim Verbeek would have been content with the 0-0 scoreline. His team emerged after the break a different outfit.
Confident it had weathered the best the Serbians had to offer, Australia took control and was rewarded with an unstoppable header from Tim Cahill.
A long-range scorcher from Brett Holman – to who most Socceroo supporters now owe a grovelling apology – briefly raised hopes of a place in the Round of 16.
Mark Schwarzer’s spilled shot killed that likelihood, but few held it against Australia’s number one.
Germany’s win over Ghana had done the Socceroos no favours.
But while many still blame Verbeek’s timid tactics against Germany in the opening game for scuttling the Socceroos’ campaign, his side was still able to finish with four points – enough to get Australia through to the Round of 16 four years earlier.
It remains to be seen if the bright end to what began so darkly is enough to save Verbeek’s face as he departs to Morocco.
But the side, much maligned after the German game, can rest assured that it would have restored faith in all but the most fickle of their country’s fans.
The Serbia win could be the last time many of those players are seen in a national team shirt, bringing an end to the so-called ‘golden generation’. It made Neill’s tears at the final whistle all the more poignant.
The Socceroos weren’t able to meet the heights of 2006 in South Africa. But at least they went down fighting.