WORLD CUP QUALIFYING, ASIA PLAY-OFF 2ND LEG
(Australia win 3-2 on aggregate)
SYDNEY • Australia coach Ange Postecoglou hailed Tim Cahill as "the greatest ever", after the veteran striker scored twice to keep the Socceroos' World Cup hopes alive with a 2-1 victory over Syria in the second leg of the Asian play-off yesterday.
Cahill, 37, cancelled out Omar al-Soma's opener in the first half before he leapt to head Australia's precious winning goal in the 109th minute.
After last week's 1-1 draw in Malaysia, Australia won 3-2 on aggregate to reach a play-off next month against the fourth-placed team from the Concacaf federation.
"We always find a difficult way to do things, that's been fairly consistent throughout qualification," Postecoglou told Fox Sports after the match.
"But it's a fantastic effort from the players physically. Timmy was Timmy and that's why he's our greatest ever.
"When (Cahill) broke the 100 games I said he's a great Australian sportsperson and he's got an international record that will stack up against the best in the world.
"I can't think of the last time he played 90 minutes and (today) he's played 120."
The United States, Panama and Honduras, the three nations who could provide the opposition in the intercontinental play-off, play their final qualifiers later on Tuesday (this morning, Singapore time).
Syria, who played their "home" qualifiers in Malaysia because of the security situation in their war-torn nation, fought until the very end but came up short in their bid for a maiden World Cup spot.
The result left Syrians in Damascus in tears. But in opposition-held territory, where some Syrians feel the national team has become a symbol of a government they despise, there were those who cheered Australia's 2-1 win.
The prospect of the Syrian team qualifying for football's biggest contest brought thousands of cheering fans into public squares and cafes across government-held parts of the country. Excitement had been building for days and students lobbied to have lectures rescheduled so they could watch the game, which kicked off at noon Syrian time.
Vendors hiked prices for Syria kits as demand soared for the red, black and white strip of the national team, nicknamed the Qasioun Eagles.
Accountant Ramez Talawi, 29, had taken a day off work so he could watch the match. "The team managed to do something that politics and men of religion could not, which is to unify the Syrian people," he said.
The Syrians, without five first-choice players through injury or suspension, made the perfect start in the sixth minute to cancel out Australia's away-goal advantage from the first leg.
Australia then lost Brad Smith to injury, bringing dropped midfielder Aaron Mooy on to the pitch, and the Asian champions drew level in the 13th minute.
Mathew Leckie broke down the right and delivered a pinpoint cross that Cahill was never going to pass up, heading the ball home in his 103rd international match.
Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Al-Mawas was sent off for a second yellow card four minutes into the first period of extra time and from then on, it appeared only a matter of time before the Australians would break down the already-weary visitors.
Cahill once again headed the ball into the top left-hand corner, to the delight of the majority of the 42,136 crowd in the ANZ Stadium.
"I knew I was going to score, I didn't touch the ball much but in the end I delivered," said Cahill, who has played at the last three World Cups.
"That's what I've done my whole life and I'll continue to do it."
Postecoglou added that Cahill's experience proved the difference.
"These games throw up a lot of pressure and you're looking for people who've done it before and can do what it takes," the 52-year-old said.
"I told them just to keep going, that's what football's about, there's a big prize at stake. Nights like tonight are where you build belief."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE