Socceroos aim for fast start to break Syria's gritty resolve

Members of the Syria squad in high spirits ahead of the second leg of their Asian play-off against Australia. The 75th-ranked side will look to defy the critics and beat the home side in Sydney.
Members of the Syria squad in high spirits ahead of the second leg of their Asian play-off against Australia. The 75th-ranked side will look to defy the critics and beat the home side in Sydney.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SYDNEY • Syria will rely on their trademark fighting spirit to keep their World Cup "miracle" alive against Australia today, as the Socceroos look to ride a wave of home support in the second leg.

The Syrians were fortunate to grab a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Asian play-off in Malaysia last week, after a disputed late penalty left Australia fuming and was panned on social media.

But it was enough to maintain a remarkable qualifying campaign that has defied Syria's brutal civil war, thanks largely to a steely resolve instilled by coach Ayman al-Hakim.

It now comes down to 90 minutes at Sydney's ANZ Stadium, with the winners going into a two-legged clash with the fourth-placed team from the Concacaf (North, Central American and Caribbean region) federation - currently Panama.

"Our match with Australia in Sydney is difficult, and although we'll be missing five players (through injuries or suspension), we are used to playing outside of our land," said al-Hakim. "I say to our fans, 'What we have achieved so far is not only an achievement, but a miracle, and we will push with all our force to continue our journey on the path of achieving our dream'."

Striker Omar al-Soma, who only returned to the team recently after a long absence believed to be for political reasons, said the squad did not lack self-belief.

"The draw (in Malaysia) was fair... our key for the second match will be the fighting spirit, the will, and the set pieces," he said.

The ANZ Stadium has been home to some of the Socceroos' most memorable moments, including the 2005 World Cup play-off win against Uruguay that sent them to their first Finals in 32 years.

Coach Ange Postecoglou said home support could make all the difference to Australia, who also lifted the Asian Cup trophy at the same venue in 2015.

"When 80 per cent of your players play abroad, it does have extra significance when they play at home in front of family and friends, and feel that sort of love from the crowd," he said. "It certainly helps, and in some ways, it influences what happens on the pitch with the opposition - they feel the heat of the opposition crowd."

Forward Tim Cahill, the only current Socceroo to have been part of that triumph over Uruguay, is mostly used as a substitute these days, but Postecoglou is considering starting the 37-year-old in a bid to shut down Syria early.

"I think the start is going to be important. We can really put the game to bed if we start strongly," he said.

Celtic star Tom Rogic, who only featured for a few minutes of the first leg, is set to play a more prominent role today.

With his ability to dribble, pass and shoot from distance, he could be a potential game changer.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

AUSTRALIA V SYRIA

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2017, with the headline 'Socceroos aim for fast start to break Syria's gritty resolve'. Print Edition | Subscribe