WORLD CUP QUALIFYING, ASIA PLAY-OFF 1ST LEG
MALACCA • Syria's hopes of reaching their first football World Cup are alive and kicking after they came from behind to grab a controversial 1-1 first-leg draw with Australia in Malacca yesterday.
Australia held a one-goal lead for 45 minutes after Robbie Kruse's strike in the first half, but a disputed penalty, tucked home by Omar al-Soma with five minutes left, gave the Syrians a lifeline going into the return leg in Sydney.
Australia's coach Ange Postecoglou had faced a torrent of criticism after his side failed to qualify automatically on goal difference for next year's World Cup in Russia.
He rang the changes for the match against the Asian side, handing Suwon Bluewings defender Matt Jurman his international debut and surprisingly leaving Celtic playmaker Tom Rogic on the bench.
In hot and steamy conditions, and on a dire pitch at Hang Jebat Stadium, Australia struggled to find their rhythm early on.
The match was played in Malaysia because of the civil war in Syria.
Jurman had a chance in the second minute, after Mathew Leckie was hauled down on the edge of the box, but the centre-back's header from the free kick that followed sailed wide.
Leckie then blasted over on 29 minutes before al-Soma twice set up Omar Khribin for opportunities that the in-form striker put wide of the Australian goal.
Five minutes before half-time, Leckie created Australia's opener when he received a ball down the right from Milos Degenek, cut inside and arrowed a shot which went in off the boot of Kruse.
After the break, Australia's Tomi Juric was unlucky to see his shot come back off the woodwork - and even unluckier when he crashed the rebound off the same post.
But Syria were looking dangerous and Khribin had a shot blocked by Leckie, before al-Soma headed a good chance over and was then denied an almost certain goal by Degenek's last-ditch lunge.
The game was opening up as both teams surged forward. It was a nervous final 20 minutes for Australia.
Syria kept probing and eventually got their reward.
Leckie went from hero to villain when he was harshly judged to have jostled al-Soma when jumping up to challenge for a header.
The referee pointed to the spot and al-Soma calmly stepped up to convert past Ryan.
The draw sets up a nerve-racking second leg in Sydney on Tuesday, with the eventual winners going into another play-off with a Concacaf team either from North or Central America or the Caribbean region for a spot at Russia 2018.
THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE