By Timothy Collings
RUSTENBURG (Reuters) - Australia made light of their advancing years and the early dismissal of striker Harry Kewell to produce a gallant fight for World Cup survival on Saturday as they held Ghana to an often dramatic 1-1 draw.
In an open, fast-moving and incident-filled Group D encounter that began boldly and ended bloodily, the Socceroos showed immense spirit, grit and ambition to take their first point of the tournament.
The Australians led as early as the 11th minute when Brett Holman profited from an error by Ghanaian keeper Richard Kingson who spilled a shot from Mark Bresciano, allowing Holman to net the rebound.
But their hopes of victory were wrecked when Kewell was sent off by Italian referee Roberto Rossetti 13 minutes later for stopping a goalbound shot by Jonathan Mensah on the line with his upper right arm.
Asamoah Gyan waited while Kewell argued and gesticulated his way off the field - he was finally escorted up the tunnel to the dressing room by FIFA officials - before firing a low spot-kick into the bottom right corner.
It was Gyan's second successful penalty for Ghana, having scored the only goal in their victory over Serbia.
That was the end of the scoring, but just the start of the excitement as both teams threw caution to the wind on a cool and vuvuzuela-scored evening of clever individual play, wild errors, abundant openings, brave defending and goalkeeping.
Ghana had several chances to win it, but when Gyan, after 50 minutes, and substitute Quincy Owosu-Abeyie, after 88, were on target, 37-year-old Socceroos keeper Mark Schwarzer produced two superb diving saves.
At the other end, Kingson blocked a 72nd minute shot by Luke Wilkshire and then stood up as Joshua Kennedy fired the rebound straight at him.
When the final whistle blew Ghana right-back John Pantsil was being treated for a bloody facial wound after a painful clash with Australian substitute Kennedy and his own team-mate Lee Addy.
He was carried off on a stretcher.
Australia's Kewell told reporters after the game that the decision to send him off was harsh.
"Everyone that's seen it is saying 'ok, fair enough, it's a penalty'. But was it deliberate? Of course not, I've never been that way inclined," he said.
His dismissal left the team to battle with just 10 men for the second consecutive game. Australian midfielder Tim Cahill was sent off in their first group game against Germany and missed the Ghana match.
"I think we showed our true spirits then (after the sending off). It would just be nice if we could play a game with 11 men. It's a shame that it's come down to what it's come down to, but again that's football, you just take it on the chin and move on," Kewell said.
Ghana lead the group with four points from two games and need at least a draw in their final fixture against Germany at the Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg on Wednesday to guarantee qualification for the second stage.
"The result is quite good (for Ghana), we have four points and we will see how things go against Germany," Ghana coach Milovan Rajevac said.
"We know what Germany are but Germany lost against Serbia so anything is possible," he added, referring to Friday's shock result which saw Serbia defeat Germany 1-0 in Port Elizabeth.
Australia now have just one point from two games but if they can win their final group game against Serbia in Nelspruit on Wednesday they may yet claim an unlikely place in the final 16, possibly at Ghana's expense.
"The players had to work very hard for us to have a chance and that is just what they did," said Australia coach Pim Verbeek. "We had an unbelievable chance to win it, but I am very proud of the players not just for their efforts, but because they also played some very good football.
(Editing by Nigel Hunt)