Syria’s improbable dream of qualifying for the FIFA 2018 World Cup Russia has ended after they went down valiantly 3-2 on aggregate in their play-off with Australia.
A late late header from Socceroos captain Tim Cahill in the second half of second-leg extra time made the score 2-1 on the day and 3-2 on aggregate.
Cahill added to his goal on 13 minutes to give Australia a stunning come-from-behind win, after Syria had gone 1-0 up after just 6 minutes through Omar Al Somah.
In the end, one hundred and eighty minutes of football could not separate the two sides, who were tied level at 2-2 on aggregate following identical 1-1 results after 90 minutes in both play-off legs.
In the first leg in Malaysia, where Syria play their home games due to the conflict that still rages in their home nation, Omar Al Somah’s 85th-minute penalty was enough to cancel out a Robbie Kruse first half strike.
That meant that going into the game at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney, everything was still to play for, with Australia looking to make a return to Russia having played in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in the summer.
However, it was Syria who drew first blood on their quest for improbable World Cup qualification.
After just 6 minutes, Al Somah again pumped further belief into the Syria dream by lifting the ball over goalkeeper Matthew Ryan from a Tamer Haj Mohamad assist and beautifully finishing off a quick Syria break.
Seven minutes later, captain Cahill leveled on the day, sending the expectant 42,136 spectators inside the ANZ Stadium into rapture after seeing their side inexplicably fall behind.
With the scores level, neither side could seem to get a foothold in the game. Some fine goalkeeping from Syria stopper Ibrahim Alma to keep out Cahill and then Tom Rogic in the second half kept his side in with a chance of qualification.
In the final 15 minutes of normal time – known affectionately as ‘Syria time’ due to the team’s tendencies to score late goals in the World Cup qualifiers – Syria did everything they could to create another small footballing miracle.
But it didn’t come, and when the 90 minutes were up both sides were still level with extra time needed to decide who would be going through to the next round of qualifiers.
In the first half of extra time, tragedy struck for Syria when Mahmoud Al Mawas received a second yellow for a late challenge on Kruse. Syria’s bench appeared bemused at the decision, which came as a double blow as Al Mawas would have been a penalty taker had the match been decided by a shootout.
With Al Mawas out, it was up to the remaining ten men to prolong one of the most endearing tales in world football. Alma did his best in that regard, again displaying his lightning reflexes to deny substitute Nikita Rukavytsya and ensure his side went into the extra-time break level.
Over the second 15 minutes, both sides showed signs of tiredness. Rukavytsya caused controversy by going down in the area but failing to win a penalty, prompting angry protestations from the Syrian players, who felt the Ukrainian-born forward should have been booked.
Then, with 6 minutes of the extra time period remaining, Kruse delivered a ball from the left into the Syria penalty area. The stocky figure of Cahill rose to meet the ball and guide it goal-wards. Alma could only reach it with his fingertips on its way into the net.
Australia led 2-1. They would advance as it stood at the expense of Syria.
A free kick in the dying embers of added time saw Zahir Midani agonisingly hit the post with Ryan beaten, clattering off the woodwork and behind for a corner. The Sydney crowd breathed a sigh of relief.
With that, the Syrian dream and Herculean effort to qualify for Russia was over, and referee brought an end to the game moments later.
Australia now advance to the inter-confederation playoff stage held on November 6 and November 14.