Omar Al Soma’s controversial late penalty kept Syria’s unlikely World Cup dream alive as they secured a 1-1 draw with Australia in the first leg of their fourth-round qualifier in Malaysia on Thursday.
Ange Postecoglou’s men appeared to be on course for a 1-0 win thanks to Robbie Kruse’s first-half goal, but Al Soma converted from the spot to ensure Syria go into the second leg with every chance of progressing to a play-off with a CONCACAF nation.
Seemingly wary of the underdogs’ desperation to cause a shock, Australia handled the early stages very well, as they took few risks and concentrated on nullifying their hosts.
Gradually the visitors took charge and, although Syria did see a couple of chances spurned by Omar Kharbin, Australia were fully deserving of the lead when Kruse tapped in from close range five minutes prior to half-time.
Syria’s World Cup dreams should have been effectively ended soon after the break when Tomi Juric hit the post twice in quick succession, but they did not let that scare affect them.
The home side – playing at a neutral venue – piled on the pressure towards the end and even struck the woodwork with 13 minutes to go, before then snatching a draw from the jaws of defeat five minutes from time, leaving the tie finely poised ahead of the return leg in Sydney.
Australia sat back during the early exchanges, appearing determined not to get caught out on the break, something they have been susceptible to in recent times.
Their pragmatic approach helped restrict Syria’s chances and Australia almost carved out a glorious chance of their own on the counter, but Kruse, who darted on to Aaron Mooy’s delightful lobbed pass, played his final ball slightly too far ahead of Juric in the centre of the area.
The first real chance of the match fell to Mathew Leckie after 30 minutes; the midfielder blasting over from 12 yards after Juric picked him out with a fine cutback.
Syria eventually settled and went close twice in quick succession – Kharbin put two volleys just wide of the right-hand post from a pair of brilliant Al Soma crosses.
The visitors made the most of those let-offs and took the lead just before the break, as Kruse nudged past the goalkeeper from close range after fine work on the right by Leckie.
Syria began the second half with renewed belief and tested Mat Ryan in the Australia goal for the first time two minutes after the re-start, but the Brighton and Hove Albion man pushed Mahmoud Al Maowas’ 20-yard effort away.
Australia should have put the game beyond Syria shortly after, though.
A pass from the right found its way through to Juric in the area, and his controlled shot came back off the left-hand post, before his effort on the rebound did exactly the same.
Luck appeared to be on Australia’s side when Firas Al Khatib nodded Al Soma’s cross on to the post 13 minutes from the end.
But Syria were presented with the gift their performance deserved in the 85th minute, as Leckie was harshly penalised for a push in the area and Al Soma emphatically dispatched the spot-kick to secure a commendable draw ahead of the second leg.
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