Syria dream continues as Al Soma penalty denies Australia

Gabriel Tan

Syria’s bid to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup is very much alive after Omar Al Soma’s late penalty forced a 1-1 draw with Australia in Thursday’s qualifying playoff.

It initially looked as though the Socceroos would claim a crucial first-leg victory at the Hang Jebat Stadium courtesy of Robbie Kruse’s 40th-minute opener.

But with five minutes remaining, Al Soma converted from the spot to leave Syria level on aggregate ahead of Tuesday’s return encounter in Sydney.

Although they did concede what could still prove to be a decisive away goal, the Syrians have every right to continue dreaming about qualifying for Russia 2018, especially following a spirited second-half fightback.

In the proverbial game of two halves, it was Australia who gained the ascendancy early on in Thursday’s clash at the neutral venue of Malaysia, although they had to wait till the 19th minute for their first real chance.

A clearance by Fahad Youssef landed straight to Mark Milligan, and his excellent effort with the outside of his right foot forced Ibrahim Alma into a flying save at full stretch.

Ten minutes later, an even better opportunity went begging when Josh Risdon showed good determination to win possession down the right and lay the ball off to Mathew Leckie, only for the Hertha Berlin man to blaze over unmarked from 12 yards.

Syria did threaten four minutes after the half-hour mark when Omar Kharbin got in ahead of his marker to meet an Al Soma cross but was unable to keep his effort on target.

Nonetheless, it was the Socceroos who found the breakthrough five minutes before the interval; Kruse getting a toe on a low drive from Leckie to divert the ball past Alma.

Things could have gotten even worse for Syria had the woodwork not come to their rescue four minutes after the restart.

Pouncing on some slack defending, Tomi Juric fired a shot past Alma only to see it hit the bar, before he contrived to fire the rebound off the foot of the post after the ball had kindly fallen back into his path.

At this stage, it looked as though Syria were finally going to be found out following their dream run through the previous round of qualifiers, where they finished ahead of Uzbekistan, China PR and Qatar to earn a playoff berth.

Instead, Ayman Al Hakeem’s charges went on to show exactly why they have come so far.

Moments before Juric’s double miss, Mahmoud Al Mawas had already forced Mathew Ryan into a smart save down low after being released by Kharbin.

Then, Kharbin, who worked hard but ultimately had a quiet game by his lofty standards, unleashed a 25-yard freekick in the 68th minute that took a wicked deflection and was a whisker away from finding the top corner.

By now, the momentum had swung fully in favour of the Syrians and Al Soma was unlucky not to equalise in the 77th minute, as he met Firas Al Khatib’s left-wing cross with a header that Ryan somehow managed to divert onto the post.

However, there was to be no denying them seven minutes later when they were awarded a penalty, after Leckie was adjudged to have shoved Al Soma inside the box while challenging for a header.

The Al Ahli striker picked himself up and, despite what must have been the pressure of an entire nation on his shoulders, made no mistake in sending an emphatic effort into the top corner.

There was still time for more drama as Trent Sainsbury’s firm header from an Aaron Mooy freekick forced Alma into a fine reflex save, before Ryan did brilliantly to tip over a speculative effort from the edge of the box by Moayad Ajan.

In the end, a draw was perhaps the fairest result in a game which saw two teams dominate 45 minutes each, setting up what must be another thriller at Stadium Australia in five days’ time.

SYRIA: Ibrahim Alma, Fahad Youssef, Hadi Al Masri, Zaher Medani, Moayad Ajan, Mahmoud Al Mawas (Firas Al Khatib 75’), Khaled Al-Mobayed, Tamer Haj Mohamad, Youssef Kalfa (Oday Al Jafal 46’), Omar Al Soma, Omar Kharbin (Mardik Mardikian 80’).

AUSTRALIA: Mathew Ryan, Milos Degenek, Trent Sainsbury, Matthew Jurman, Josh Risdon (Nikita Rukavytsya 63’), Aaron Mooy, Mark Milligan, Aziz Behich, Robbie Kruse (Massimo Luongo 70’), Mathew Leckie, Tomi Juric (Tom Rogic 83’).

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