They appear hellbent on making qualification for the World Cup as difficult as possible, but at least the Socceroos’ hopes of reaching Russia are still alive.
After falling behind to an early hammer blow at ANZ Stadium, Ange Postecoglou’s side recovered to beat Syria 2-1 by the skin of their teeth in extra-time and book a place in a final qualifying play-off. The bad news for followers of Australian football is that, inevitably, another gut-wrenching 180 minutes of tension awaits.
Tim Cahill, restored to the starting lineup having been left on the bench for last week’s first leg in Malaysia, sparked the revival early in the first half and then sealed the win deep in extra-time, both with trademark headers. The second, in the 109th minute, was the talismanic forward’s 50th for his country. You could say it was one of the more important goals of his international career.
“He’s just a freak,” Postecoglou said of Cahill. “I can’t think of when he last played 90 minutes, let alone 120. He’s got real belief in himself. He’s just a unique, extraordinary individual. He led from the front today.”
It might have been a different story. Omar Al Soma, last week’s Syrian goalscorer in the 1-1 draw that set up such a tense game in Sydney, had stunned the home side inside six minutes and prompted a wave of early panic inside the stadium. Even after Cahill had helped ease those fears, Al Soma very nearly struck a decisive blow with a free-kick that struck Mathew Ryan’s upright in the final minute. A 2-2 draw on the night would have sent Syria through. Such are the margins.
“I had belief in the players and in what we do,” Postecoglou said. “I have real conviction in the way we do things and part of that process is that we know we wear teams down and they have to work awfully hard to stay with us. That’s the kind of game we’re built for and we keep going right until the end and make sure when the whistle goes, we’re the ones still standing.”
Another two-legged tie, likely against Panama or Honduras of the Concacaf region, in November is the Socceroos’ prize for a heart-stopping victory that puts Syria out of the running. For Postecoglou, who was shouldering intense pressure going into this game, his tenure continues for at least another two games.
Postecoglou is his own man and has always done things his own way. Tuesday was no different, with his team selection raising eyebrows when it was announced hours before the kick-off: out went Aaron Mooy, last week’s standout player in Malacca, and in came Tom Rogic. Cahill, who turns 38 in December, got the nod to lead the line while Brad Smith, who endured a torrid time against Japan at the end of August, and James Troisi also started.
It was a statement of attacking intent but the Socceroos could not have got off to a worse start. With just five minutes on the clock, Mark Milligan lost the ball cheaply in the middle of the park and Syria made him – and Australia – pay dearly. As the visitors broke at pace Al Soma received the ball from Tamer Hag Mohamad and kept his cool, finishing astutely past Ryan. Postecoglou later said it was a “dumb goal to concede”.
Cue delirium among those in the 42,136-strong crowd sporting white, red and black. The main section of Syrian fans, mostly assembled behind the goal at the opposite end, had already made their presence felt. Against a complex political backdrop and divided loyalties towards their conflict-ravaged country, the national anthem was sung with gusto by those inside the stadium – outside protests against Bashar al-Assad’s regime had been staged before kick-off.
Their counterparts in gold were left stunned. This was not going how their night was supposed to pan out. To their credit, the Socceroos responded well to the early blow and, off the back of what was superficially a moment of misfortune, the tide turned in the hosts’ favour. Smith, having picked up what looked like a hip injury, could play no further part; enter Mooy in his place, to cap his exile at a touch over 10 minutes.
The equaliser came soon after. And it was who else but Cahill to haul his side out of the hole they had dug for themselves. Matthew Leckie delivered the kind of cross that Cahill dreams of – his bread and butter – and he rose, loosely marked, to power a header past Ibrahim Alma.
With Mooy back in the lineup, Australia became a more potent attacking threat and the Huddersfield midfielder’s deft touch brought a calming influence to the Socceroos’ midfield, which began to impose itself on the game. Troisi stung Alma’s fingers before he ran onto a delightful reverse pass from Mooy to cross for Cahill, whose goalbound effort ricocheted wide.
Alma was tested again, this time by Leckie, Rogic’s snap shot on the turn bounced wide of the mark and a handball shout was turned down as half-time approached but despite their ascendency, the Socceroos went in at the break locked at 1-1 – the only result that would have prompted a period of extra-time.
The chances continued to come after the break, but frustration mounted as the Syrians’ defence repelled the hosts. Leckie saw a header bounce the wrong side of an upright, another Cahill header was easy for Alma to claim and the keeper made a stunning save to deny Rogic, who then saw a curling effort drift wide of the post.
Tempers threatened to boil over as the Syrians, apparently happy to prolong the game, sought to run the clock down; the quality of the game suffered but with two minutes left, Rogic emerged from the scrappiness to get a shot off. It was deflected wide and with that any hope – from either side – of ending the tie in regulation time evaporated. Extra-time – and yet more mileage on the journey to Russia – beckoned.
Syria’s hopes were dealt a blow early in the first period of extra-time as they were reduced to 10 men after Mahmoud Al Mawas was cautioned for a second time – for a challenge on Leckie – and the manner of his departure from the pitch only served to reinforce the theory the visitors fancied their chances more in a shootout. To say the midfielder took his time in reaching the touchline would be the understatement of the night.
Still, there was opportunity for Syria to snag a winner on the break, and had Al Soma not dragged his shot wide midway through the first half of extra-time, things could have been different. Likewise, had Nikita Rukavytsya’s volley from a wonderful Mooy cross not been diverted over the bar.
But it was left to Cahill, so often Australia’s saviour, to deliver the knockout blow, bring up a personal milestone, avert the lottery of spot-kicks and keep his side in the running to reach the World Cup finals. Not bad for a night’s work.
This article was written by Mike Hytner at ANZ Stadium, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 10th October 2017 12.40 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010