SYDNEY (AP) — War-torn Syria’s hopes of qualifying for next year’s World Cup ended in a 2-1 extra-time loss to Australia.
Tim Cahill again delivered for his country with two goals in a comeback win in an Asian playoff on Tuesday that ended moments after Omar Al Soma hit the base of the post with a free kick that could have instead earned Syria the place in the final stage of qualifying.
Syria’s improbable run toward a first World Cup attracted global attention, which heightened after it salvaged a 1-1 draw in the first leg last week at its adopted home ground in Malaysia.
Syria’s chances grew dramatically after it took a 1-0 lead in the return match in Sydney in the 6th minute, but Cahill’s goals in the 13th minute and in extra time secured Australia’s place in a playoff next month against the fourth-place team from North and Central America.
“I think we deserved to get through, a fantastic effort by the players,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said, before praising the composure of his veteran forward. “Timmy is Timmy, that’s why he’s a great Australian sportsman.”
The 2-1 win at home gave the Australians a 3-2 win on aggregate against the Syrians.
Qualifying in CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) concludes later Tuesday, with the possibility that the United States — in third spot ahead of its last game — could still finish in the playoff spot.
“You’ve got to write your own script,” said Cahill, who has been a star of Australia’s World Cup campaigns since scoring against Japan at Germany in 2006. “It’s a responsibility when I play. This is my passion. I will run to the end for this manager and these players. I’m proud of everything we have done together.”
The Syrian squad arrived in Sydney as the underdogs, despite a remarkable campaign in the group stage, when it sealed third place in its group with a late equalizer in Tehran against the already-qualified Iran.
This time, it went right to the wire again despite Syria being reduced to ten men in the first half of extra time and with the game still locked at 1-1.
The Australians dominated the start of last week’s match in Malaysia and were expecting to do the same again, but Syria got a perfect start when Mark Milligan lost control of the ball in midfield and al-Soma finished off the counter-attack with precision in the 6th minute.
It was al-Soma’s second goal against Australia in five days after he won and converted a penalty kick in the 85th minute of the first leg.
But Australia soon leveled when Matt Leckie delivered a perfect cross to find captain Cahill at the far post and the veteran attacker made no mistake from close range.
Star playmaker Firas al-Khatib came off the bench on the hour mark as Syria coach Ayman al-Hakim looked to create the goal-scoring chance.
Al-Khatib made an immediate impact, almost finding al-Soma in a scoring position after a well-timed run through Australia’s defense.
As the game became stretched, Tomi Rogic thought he had scored for Australia in the 70th — latching on to Leckie’s inside pass — but Alma produced a stunning save low to his left to deny the midfielder. Off the resulting corner, Rogic then curled his shot inches wide of the post to continue, to the hosts’ frustration.
Syria created a late chance after al-Soma combined with al-Khatib but the substitute lost his footing.
Rogic again found himself in a good shooting position in the 89th minute but his left strike deflected narrowly wide as the match went to extra time.
Syria had a serious setback when Mahmoud Almawas was sent off in the 94th after earning a second yellow card for a crude tackle on Robbie Kruse.
It took another incisive run from Cahill, powering home his 50th international goal from Kruse’s cross to finally give Australia the edge, as he has so often done in an international career spanning 103 games with 50 goals.
Syria almost produced an epic upset win in the last minute as al-Soma’s powerful free kick hit the right post with keeper Mat Ryan beaten.
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