Aussies dash war-torn Syria’s World Cup hopes in extra time

SYDNEY: Omar al-Soma’s free kick crashed into the post with moments to go in a dramatic end to war-torn Syria’s World Cup hopes, and sending Tim Cahill’s Australian squad into the final playoff for a spot in Russia.

The 37-year-old Cahill again delivered for his country with two goals in a 2-1 extra-time win on Tuesday that clinched the Asian playoff 3-2 on aggregate.

Syria’s improbable run toward a first World Cup attracted global attention, which heightened after they salvaged a 1-1 draw in the first leg last week at their adopted home ground in Malaysia.

Syria’s chances grew dramatically after they 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.”

But for a matter of inches, it could have been al-Soma getting all the accolades. After returning to the national team from a self-imposed five-year absence amid the upheaval in his country, al-Soma played a vital role in Syria’s surge to third spot in the third round of Asian qualifying, which set up the playoff series against Australia.

He scored in the 85th-minute to secure the 1-1 draw last week in Malaysia, and he opened the scoring in the 6th minute in the return leg to silence a parochial crowd at Sydney’s Olympic stadium. The crowd was silent again when al-Soma stepped up in the last minute of extra time with a chance to make it 2-2, a result that would have allowed Syria to advance to the next stage on away goals but his free kick missed by the narrowest of margins with keeper Mat Ryan beaten.

Qualifying in CONCACAF concludes later Tuesday, with the possibility that the United States in third spot ahead of their last game could still finish in the playoff spot, with Honduras and Panama also possible oppositions.

“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.”

Syria coach Ayman al-Hakim was full of praise for the courage of his team, which finished with 10 men after Mahmoud Almawas was sent off in the fourth minute of extra time after picking up a second yellow card.

“I am very proud of my boys with what they have achieved so far and that’s going to be continuing,” al-Hakim said through a translator.

“At the end there are mistakes in soccer. The players followed instruction very, very well. But the Australian goal happens because of the pressure of the Socceroos.” The Syrians chased the win right to the end.

With the score locked at 1-1 and an hour gone, Hakim sent in star playmaker Firas al-Khatib to create the goal-scoring chance.

As the game became stretched, Tom Rogic thought he had scored for Australia in the 70th latching on to Matt Leckie’s inside pass but Ibrahim Alma produced a stunning save low to his left to deny the midfielder. Off the resulting corner, Rogic then curled his shot inches wide.

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.

It took another incisive run from Cahill, powering home his 50th international goal from Robbie Kruse’s cross to finally give Australia the edge, as he has so often has in an international career spanning 103 games with 50 goals.

“I will run to the end for this manager and these players,” Cahill said.

“I’m proud of everything we have done together.”

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