Kuala Lumpur: With the Asian Qualifiers draw for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 upon us, we continue our look at classic matches of the past with an epic encounter on the road to Russia 2018.
Separated by the full width of the Asian confederation, Australia and Syria had little in common when they met in a hotly-contested two-legged play-off in October 2017, but it took 210 minutes and the width of a goalpost to separate them in what proved to be a modern-day classic.
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Australia came into the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 with the world at their feet.
Having appeared at the last three World Cups, the Socceroos were crowned AFC Asian Cup winners on home soil in 2015, with the adventurous ideology of head coach Ange Postecoglou - whose methods had seen his Brisbane Roar outfit dominate the Australian A-League - bearing fruit in spectacular style.
Many of Australia’s 2006 ‘golden generation’ had finished their international careers either just before or just after the 2014 World Cup, but Tim Cahill, who began the qualifying campaign with 39 international goals to his name, remained a key ingredient in Postecoglou’s recipe.
Cahill’s goals were a regular early feature of Australia’s campaign. He scored eight as they topped their section in the first group stage, but the Socceroos ran into trouble in the final round with four successive draws, eventually sealing a playoff spot after being edged, on goal difference, by Saudi Arabia.
While Australia had been expected to qualify for the World Cup at the first attempt, Ayman Hakeem’s Syria had come from a totality different starting point.
Unable to play home matches from 2011 onwards due to security concerns, the Syrians failed to qualify for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup - let alone any World Cup - but, playing their home games in Oman, they flew out of the tracks on the road to Russia with six wins from eight to advance to the final group stage.
Malaysia became their temporary home for that stage of the competition, but Syria had major difficulties finding the back of the net, scoring just once in their opening five matches, before Al Ahli Saudi FC striker Omar Al Soma returned to the side after a long absence with two games remaining.
Joining fellow Saudi-based star Omar Khribin, the deadly forward’s arrival coincided with Syria ‘s 3-1 win over Qatar in the penultimate match, before they claimed a miraculous 2-2 draw away to Islamic Republic of Iran on the final matchday, with Al Soma scoring deep into second-half stoppage time to take the Qasioun Eagles to the playoff ahead of Uzbekistan.
While Syria came into the first leg, at Melaka’s Hang Jebat Stadium, with momentum behind them, Australia found themselves under intense pressure following the perceived under-achievement of missing out on direct qualification.
Having been so close to securing a place in Russia, Australia now needed not only to overcome Syria, but win a second playoff against the fourth-ranked team from the CONCACAF region to complete their mission of reaching a fourth successive World Cup.
Part of their problem was their inability to win on the road. It had been 13 months since they had beaten the United Arab Emirates with a solitary Cahill goal in Abu Dhabi – his most recent in the green and gold – and Postecoglou’s side had run out of room for error.
The Socceroos came out swinging in Melaka, taking the lead when Robbie Kruse deflected Mathew Leckie’s cross-cum-shot into the net in the 12th-minute, before Tomi Juric was denied by twice by the same post.
But Syria had grown accustomed to overcoming adversity, and they slowly but surely worked their way into the contest before controlling the latter stages, with Al Soma and Khribin both causing Australia headaches before Syria’s breakthrough finally came from a late penalty, with Al Soma levelling the tie in the 85th minute in a 1-1 first leg draw.
Once again, Australia had been denied a win on the road, but they were still in a strong position going into the home leg, particularly when considering their stunning record of just one World Cup qualifying loss on home soil in the preceding 36 years.
That record looked under threat as early six minutes into the second leg, as the talismanic Al Soma beat Mat Ryan to punish a wide-open Australian defence and give Syria a priceless 2-1 aggregate lead.
After a qualification campaign full of uncertainty, the 42,000 fans at Sydney’s Stadium Australia barely had time to fret about the implications of Al Soma’s goal, as Cahill - Australia’s own talisman - latched onto an inch-perfect Leckie delivery to head home the equaliser – his 49th goal for Australia and first in over a year - just seven minutes later.
With the ship steadied, it now seemed merely a matter of time until the Socceroos powered ahead, but despite a whopping 76 per cent of possession and more than 20 shots at goal, the tie remained level at 1-1 on the night and 2-2 on aggregate, forcing 30 minutes of extra time.
Syria suffered a major setback when Mahmoud Al Mawas was sent off four minutes into the extra period, but the real body blow came in the 109th minute, as clever play from Aaron Mooy and Kruse put the ball into Cahill territory, allowing the soon-to-be 38-year-old to rise majestically and become the first Australian to score a half-century of international goals.
After a 13-month international drought, Cahill had provided two when it mattered most, and, as he darted to the nearest corner flag in celebration, Syria’s dream appeared to have slipped away.
But Al Soma would have one final chance, albeit a difficult one, when Syria were awarded a 119th-minute free-kick 25 yards out, and one more Syrian goal would send them through to the Inter-Confederation playoff on away goals.
He struck the ball almost perfectly, giving goalkeeper Ryan little chance of reaching it, but instead of nestling into the bottom corner of the net, it crashed into the upright before careering harmlessly away towards the corner flag, just as Cahill had done 10 minutes earlier.
Syria had been inches away from pulling off a win for the ages, but after 20 matches and no shortage of heroics, their World Cup campaign was over.
Australia went on to face Honduras in the Inter-Confederation play-off and they proved far too strong for their Central American rivals as captain Mile Jedinak netted a hat-trick in the second leg to seal a 3-0 aggregate win.
The Socceroos were off to a fourth successive World Cup after all, but Postecoglou wouldn’t be going with them. He called time on his tenure as head coach following the Honduras tie, with Dutchman Bert van Marwijk overseeing Australia’s group stage exit in Russia.
Tim Cahill’s match-winning goal against Syria was his last for Australia, although he did appear in a fourth World Cup before retiring in November 2018 as Australia’s all-time top scorer and second most capped player.
Omar Khribin went on to be crowned AFC Player of the Year in 2017 after complementing his national team exploits with a series of sensational AFC Champions League displays for Al Hilal, while Al Soma remains one of the most prolific strikers in Asia, having netted more the 140 goals in all competitions in just five seasons for Al Ahli.
The two sides met once again in an equally epic AFC Asian Cup group stage match in January 2019, with Al Soma and Khribin both getting on the scoresheet before a late Tom Rogic wonder strike helped Australia advance to the knockout stage at Syria’s expense with a 3-2 win in Al Ain.
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