MALACCA • A qualifying campaign that has defied civil war and internal splits has brought Syria within sight of a miraculous World Cup berth - but they must first overcome Asian champions Australia.
The west Asian nation were given little chance of making an impact in the continent's qualifiers but, after reaching the regional play-offs, they stand four games away from Russia 2018.
They face Australia in Malacca tonight - their "home" fixtures are being played in Malaysia because of the civil war in Syria - before the return leg in Sydney on Tuesday.
The winners go into a two-legged clash with the fourth-placed team from the Concacaf federation - currently the United States.
Syria have scrapped to hard-fought draws with heavyweights South Korea and Iran and recorded wins over China, Uzbekistan and Qatar.
Coach Ayman al-Hakim has forged a resilient unit who have an added goal threat since the return of forward Firas al-Khatib, who had voiced support for the Syrian rebellion, and sharpshooter Omar al-Soma, whose long absence was also believed to be for political reasons.
Places No. 75 Syria are behind Australia in the world rankings.
Ranked 75th in the world, Syria have never reached the World Cup and they needed al-Soma's stoppage-time equaliser against Iran last month to take them into the Asian play-offs.
"It's difficult for us to hold training camps abroad or high-level warm-up matches," al-Hakim said. "Arab and foreign experts predicted that we will be the weakest team in our group. All of these factors have had a positive impact on us.
"It nourished a defiant spirit and we worked on the players' psyche to fill the gaps of proper preparations and other things."
Syria start as underdogs against Australia, who have played in the last three World Cups and reached the last 16 in 2006. The Socceroos missed out on automatic qualification this time on goal difference.
They will be without their midfield talisman Mile Jedinak and have shown enough defensive frailty to give Syria hope.
But Australia have received a late boost with key Syrian defender, China-based Ahmad Al Salih (hamstring), ruled out of both legs, reported the Herald Sun.
Coach Ange Postecoglou is confident Australia have the quality to beat Syria over two legs.
"(Syria) games tend to be a slower tempo. We'll try and keep the tempo (high) and that's going to take a physical toll on all players," he said. "We'll throw some fresh legs on in Sydney. We've shown in the past when we make changes the quality doesn't drop and style doesn't change.''
SYRIA V AUSTRALIA
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