MALACCA • Australian players and media slammed the referee after Syria's controversial late penalty dented their hopes of reaching next year's World Cup following a 1-1 play-off draw on Thursday.
The Socceroos remain in the box seat ahead of Tuesday's second leg in Sydney, where the eventual winners will go into a final play-off with the Concacaf federation's fourth-placed team. However, Omar al-Soma's 85th-minute equaliser gave Syria a lifeline.
Socceroos forward Robbie Kruse claimed Iranian referee Alireza Faghani - who gave him a yellow card when he went down with a serious injury in the 2015 Asian Cup final - was itching to give the penalty.
Australia were 1-0 up after Kruse's first-half goal but the crucial moment came when Mathew Leckie made contact with al-Soma in the box as they both went up for a header.
"It was evident to everyone it wasn't a penalty," Kruse told Australian media. "You expect that from this referee, we've had him before. I think he wanted to give it as soon as he made contact."
Coach Ange Postecoglou said he was "bemused" by the decision, while Leckie called it "very poor".
"It wasn't like I (made) body contact and tried to put him off, I actually won the header," said Leckie.
"I don't know what went through the ref's mind to give a penalty. Everyone's (angry) about the whole situation because I think everyone in the world that watched the game knows it wasn't a penalty."
The Herald Sun said Australia were "robbed" of victory, while a Fox Sports columnist questioned the wisdom of using a referee from Iran, which has close ties with Syria. More worryingly for Australia, they were under pressure for much of the second half, when al-Soma had a header deflected onto the post and Omar Khribin saw a free kick flash just wide.
Postecoglou said his team had struggled with Malaysia's hot and humid conditions but that it would be a different story in Sydney, where he can call on a number of fresh players.
"We'll make some changes to the XI. When we're at home, we want to attack aggressively," he said.
"They've got to score a goal, they've got to open up a little bit at some point. We'll make sure we take advantage of that."