Omar al-Soma buried a late penalty as war-torn Syria drew 1-1 with Australia to put their two-legged World Cup play-off on a knife-edge on Thursday.
Australia were within sight of victory after Robbie Kruse’s first-half goal, but when Mathew Leckie nudged Soma on 84 minutes the towering forward made no mistake from the spot.
It sets up a nerve-wracking second leg in Sydney on Tuesday, with the eventual winners going into another play-off with a CONCACAF federation team for a spot at Russia 2018.
Syria, playing their ‘home’ games in Malaysia because of the civil war raging in their country, are pursuing their dream of playing their first World Cup, while Asian champions Australia are trying to reach their fourth in a row.
Both teams made a cagey start in front of a sparse but Syrian-dominated crowd in sultry conditions at the Hang Jebat Stadium, a low-key setting for such an important game.
Mark Milligan’s fizzing shot with the outside of his left boot tested Mahmoud al-Youssef on 19 minutes, while Soma provided Syria’s chief threat at the other end.
Matthew Leckie blasted over on 29 minutes before Soma twice set up Omar Khribin for opportunities that the in-form Al Hilal striker put wide of the Australian goal.
Five minutes before half-time, Leckie created Australia’s opener when he received a ball down the right from Milos Degenek, cut inside and arrowed a shot which went in off the boot of Kruse.
After the break, Tomi Juric was unlucky to see his shot come back off the woodwork – and even unluckier when, bizarrely, he crashed the rebound off the same post.
But Syria were looking dangerous and Khribin had a shot blocked by Leckie, before Soma headed a good chance over and was then denied an almost certain goal by Degenek’s last-ditch lunge.
As the game headed into the final quarter, Ouday Jaffal had a close-range free kick cleared off the line and Khribin’s deflected set piece sailed just wide.
Syria should have been level on 78 minutes but Soma’s point-blank header was deflected onto the post in a reflex stop by Socceroos ‘keeper Mathew Ryan.
The critical moment came with six minutes to go, when Leckie made contact mid-air with Soma and Iranian referee Alireza Faghani pointed to the spot.
In the dying moments, Trent Sainsbury had a close-range header saved and Ryan clawed away a Moayad al-Ajan shot, but they shared the spoils to set up Tuesday’s tense decider in Sydney.