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.
Gareth Bale will miss Wales’ final two Group D World Cup qualifiers, leaving Dragons fans agonising and Irish supporters rejoicing – but the Welsh wizard’s absence might well prove to be a blessing in disguise.
On first glance it’s the worst possible time for Bale’s latest injury woes to have hit – the 28-year-old is ruled out until likely the play-offs with an injured calf.
Chris Coleman’s side face two crucial games against Georgia (Friday) before they welcome the Republic of Ireland for what should prove to be a mouthwatering crescendo to European qualifying at the Cardiff City Stadium on Monday.
They’re a gritty, passionate nation the Welsh, but at such a pivotal point on the road to Russia, can they really hope to navigate their way to six points without the big game experience of the Real Madrid superstar?
The answer is yes. Rather than wallow, Wales should be galvanised by the injury to their supposed talisman – whose undoubted importance to the men in red shouldn’t distract attention from some stellar members of Bale’s supporting cast.
Yes, statistics show Wales have won just nine per cent of games (11) under Coleman without Bale – compared to 24 per cent overall, while the figure for wins is 48 per cent both under Coleman and overall.
But that is to gloss over the contributions of Wales’ other talents – like midfield dynamo Aaron Ramsey and versatile defender Ben Davies.
Bale was an absolute phenom as Wales powered to a place at Euro 2016 – the first time Wales had graced a major tournament in nearly six decades, since a 17-year-old Pele scored the only goal as Brazil knocked them out of the 1958 World Cup in the quarter-finals.
He rocketed in seven of Wales’ 11 goals during qualifying and directly contributed to nine in total – but in eight games in Group D his influence has waned as he endured an injury-hit 2016/17 campaign for both Wales and Los Blancos.
He’s still netted four goals and an assist but that’s only five of 12 goals he’s contributed to, with two games still left to play. He hasn’t registered in either of Wales’ last four games – with Arsenal’s Ramsey rising to the occasion and scoring two goals in that period.
Despite injuries preventing his Madrid outings, Bale has only missed one game during qualifying. But he’s often struggled to impact proceedings with teams man or double marking him out of games, or finding himself isolated up front as oppositions pack their defence.
Even though his rich form throughout the previous qualifying campaign continued into the European Championships, it was Ramsey who was truly key to Wales’ stunning run to the semi-finals.
And it was the absence of the Gunners’ schemer that was really telling as Wales finally ran out of firepower in a 2-0 defeat to eventual champions Portugal.
He’s been terrific but it’s not as if ‘Rambo’ – as Ramsey is affectionately known – has been a one-man army for Wales. Hal Robson-Kanu, Joe Allen and Sam Vokes have all made key contributions during qualifying this time around.
There was also a dream debut for rising teenage talent Ben Woodburn – the 17-year-old Liverpool prospect announced himself to the world with the winning goal off the bench against Austria last month that sparked Wales’ Russia dream back into life following five successive draws.
Tottenham left-back Ben Davies, one of the form players of the early Premier League season, has long been a key cog in the Wales machine and may also be deployed in a more attacking role by Coleman over the course of the next few days.
That’s not to say Bale won’t be missed – and despite being second in the group, one point ahead of Ireland, Wales find themselves in a precarious position.
One of UEFA’s nine second-placed teams misses out on a play-off spot and Wales – with eight points against the teams ranked first to fifth in the group – are currently ninth alongside Bosnia and Herzegovina (who occupy eighth by virtue of a superior goal difference).
So there’s work to do for Wales. But should they secure a play-off berth, how much of a boost would that be, in addition to the prospect of welcoming Bale, the man for the big occasion, back into the fold for a two-legged do or die tie for a place at a first World Cup in 60 years?
You can almost hear the gnashing of teeth from here.
When Fahad Al Muwallad popped up to fire home a screamer and give Saudi Arabia a not undeserved victory against a lacklustre Japan in Jeddah on Tuesday night, it meant Australia’s chances of taking a place in Russia 2018 took a spectacular nose dive.
Al Muwallad’s 63rd minute goal meant KSA squeaked past the Socceroos into second spot in Group B, and along with Japan, a joyously celebrated automatic place in next year’s World Cup.
So now Australia must play against the third placed team in Group A, miracle boys Syria, who only just survived themselves thanks to a 93rd minute goal from Omar Al Soma snatching a 2-2 draw with already qualified Iran.
Australia will feel harshly done by – as they drew with KSA in Jeddah and then beat them in Adelaide a 3-2 thriller.
The Socceroos nemesis was the lowly rated Thailand who eked out a 2-2 draw when Australia came visiting in November 2016 and then held Australia to a 2-1 victory in Melbourne yesterday.
In contrast Saudi beat Thailand 1-0 at home but the key result was their three-nil thrashing of the War Elephants in Bangkok in March. It was those three goals that have taken KSA to Russia instead of Australia.
The Socceroos may still make it but now they have to overcome the sentimental favourites Syria, who have overcome incredible odds just to make it this far, in a home and away series in October. (Syria’s games will probably be played in Malaysia.)
The playoff lottery could then see them facing up to the US in November, as if they do beat Syria (no certainty) they have to beat the fourth placed team in CONACAF to go through to Russia. Currently that is Honduras but they are even on points with the US.
Not surprisingly the recriminations have already started Down Under into coach Ange Postecoglou’s qualifying campaign.
Go back to 2015 and Australian football was on a high after winning their first-ever major football trophy, the Asian Cup, and Postecoglou was flavor of the month.
Flash forward two and a half years and Postecoglou is fighting for his job, facing vitriol from football pundits like ex-Manchester United goalkeeper Mark Bosnich.
It looked rosy when Australia took on Japan last Thursday. The Blue Samurai were supposedly in dis-array and after Saudi Arabia’s shock loss to the UAE a point would have been enough to guarantee qualification for Russia 2018. But in the end it was the Socceroos who were in disarray as Japan ran out comfortable winners 2-0.
Postecoglou is known for his tactics and systems but he needed to get things exactly right against Japan if the Socceroos were to succeed. He didn’t, with his much maligned back three system again mis-firing.
Some believe that the Socceroos shouldn’t be in this situation in the first place, and blame Postecoglou’s decision to swap systems so late in the campaign.
They lost ground after the 2-2 draw against the Thais last November, and have been inconsistent since switching to three at the back in March when they dropped more points in a 1-1 draw with Iraq.
Ex-Socceroos’ keeper Bosnich, who played more than 200 games in the Premier League, is calling for Postecoglou to step down. This week, he lambasted “Big Ange” for everything from tactics to demeanour.
Postecoglou was happy to return fire.
“I’m not everyone’s cup of tea” he said, “It’s fair enough that people put the national team coach under scrutiny, and it doesn’t surprise me that [Bosnich] doesn’t think I’m the right person for the job.
“I’m sorry I’m not a likeable, huggable guy you guys want, I took [this job] with the intent of trying to change mindsets and a little bit of the landscape.”
The criticism of Postecoglou stems from his refusal to change his philosophies — the back three has been a mixed success at best — and his reluctance to be pragmatic enough to grind out results in the cautious manner of his predecessors Pim Verbeek and Holger Osieck.
The plus side for Postecoglou, which he has over the previous two coaches, is he is an Aussie. The minus – he lost.
An ugly 0-0 draw against Japan in Saitama would have put the Aussies in pole position to qualify. Instead, they opted to play out from the back and were humbled in a 2-0 reverse that fully justified the home side’s superiority.
Everyone then expected Australia to bounce back with a commanding performance against the already eliminated Thailand in wintery Melbourne, and leave the Saudis with a mountain to climb against Japan.
But again Thailand, who the Aussies drew 2-2 with in Bangkok last November, proved the bogey team with the home side scraping home thanks to a late Mathew Leckie goal.