Syria kept their World Cup dream firmly alive when coming from behind to secure a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the PlayOff in their home leg in Malaysia on Thursday night. Robbie Kruse opened the scoring for Australia in the 40th minute in Melaka, but the Socceroos were made to pay for not taking their chances including when Tomi Juric struck the post twice within seconds early in the secong half. Syria levelled the score six minutes from time when Mat Leckie fouled Omar Al Soma inside the penalty box and the striker tucked the resulting penalty past Mat Ryan. Syria had further chances to win the game late, but the
Socceroos withstood the pressure to return to Sydney with things level.
Australia now start the second leg as clear favourites and the greater depth in the Socceroos squad should serve them well at ANZ Stadium. The Socceroos were unbeaten at home in qualifying, winning four games and dropping just two points from a draw with Japan, while Syria picked up just four points from five games away from home – although even home games were played on the road.
Australia have been forced into two changes to the 23-man squad from the first leg with goalkeeper Danny Vukovic and defender Bailey Wright both ruled out. Mark Birighitti and Ryan McGowan have been recalled in their place.
The Socceroos are expected to make a host of changes from the side which played in Malaysia with Postecoglou keen to inject some fresh legs following the exertions of travel and heat in Melaka. With a 1-1 away draw in hand, the Socceroos need a win by any margin or a goalless draw to secure a final two-legged intercontinental play-off against the fourth-placed finishers from CONCACAF. A 1-1 draw will mean extra-time and potentially even the lottery of a
Australia are out of World Cup calculations, more than two years after they began in June 2015 against Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek. It would be the first time in four instalments the Socceroos have failed to qualify and would end the tenure of coach Ange Postecoglou, who has publicly stated he will walk away from the job at the end of the current cycle.
Tim Cahill is shaping as a potential starter up front while prospective game-changer Tom Rogic is a near-certainty for one of the No.10 slots after being rested for the first leg in Malaysia. Firas Al Khatib could hold the key. The diminutive forward, widely recognised as Syria’s all-time greatest player, was left on the bench for the first leg but inspired his side’s revival in a 15-minute cameo alongside the equally venomous Omar Al Somah. As it stands, Panama and Honduras are the next likely play-off opponents with both locked on 10 points and Panama slight favourites to finish fourth. In a boost for Australia, the United States’ 4-0 pumping of Panama on Saturday lifted the Americans to third and out of the way. But nothing will be confirmed until Wednesday when the final round kicks off simultaneously.
Just one of Syria’s five away games during qualifying had more than a single goal and that points to the visitors setting out to frustrate Australia. They will likely play for time before seeking a late winner, but the Socceroos should grind them down. It will be a nervy night if the Socceroos don’t get an early goal, but they should progress and face another two-legged showdown to make the finals.