Australia face World Cup playoffs despite Leckie winner vs. Thailand
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Australia are headed for a two-legged playoff with Syria, despite a 2-1 victory over Thailand in Melbourne in 2018 AFC World Cup qualifying.
Second-half goals from Tomi Juric and Mathew Leckie gave the Socceroos a narrow win before Saudi Arabia defeated Japan 1-0 in a later match on Tuesday to take the final automatic spot for Russia from Group A.
The Aussies must now beat the Syrians before facing another two-legged playoff against the fourth-placed CONCACAF team to advance to their fourth-consecutive World Cup.
Here are three thoughts on their final third-round qualifier.
1. Aussies trying too hard
Ange Postecoglou needed goals and he went with the most attacking line up in recent memory, making six changes from the team who lost 2-0 in Japan last Thursday.
As well as Aaron Mooy and Juric resuming their positions in the first XI, Postecoglou handed a start to record goal scorer Tim Cahill, who also wore the captain's armband as he won his 102nd cap.
With Juric operating as a lone striker, Cahill played just behind him, as he did with surprising success in June's Confederations Cup when Australia drew 1-1 with Chile. But neither Mooy nor Celtic attacker Tom Rogic played in that game.
The Socceroos didn't take long to put pressure on Thailand. After Juric's first-time shot went wide in the second minute, the home side had two tenuous penalty claims in the fourth minute as both he and Mooy hit the turf in the box.
Mooy then had a golden chance to put Australia ahead in the sixth minute when Leckie's cross from the right evaded everyone to sit up beautifully, but he failed to hit the target.
The crowd were off their feet celebrating what they thought was the opening goal in the 17th minute when Cahill beat goalkeeper Sintaweechai Hathairatanakool, only to see the ball bounce off the inside of the post and somehow fail to go in.
In the 28th minute, a Mooy free kick sailed centimetres over the bar before Juric chested the ball down in the ball from the Leckie cross, and with time, shot wide once again.
No one could have accused the Aussies of not showing commitment and industry in a frustrating first half where they had 18 shots and seven corners. But if anything, they looked like a side who were simply trying too hard at times.
But on another, luckier night, they may have gone to the break 3-0 ahead.
2. Masterly Mooy
Aaron Mooy hasn't tended to produce his best performances while wearing the national shirt, but he shone in a tireless effort.
The Huddersfield Town man set up the long overdue breakthrough in the 69th minute when his pinpoint cross from the left was headed home by the grateful Juric. And Mooy thought he'd manufactured a second in the 74th minute when he made space for Rogic only to see the Celtic man's shot saved by Sintaweechai.
After the Thais had equalised, it was Mooy's corner that led to the goalmouth scramble from which the excellent Leckie bundled home for the winning goal with his left foot.
Mooy was at the heart of everything that the Aussies did, taking the set pieces and doing his share of ball winning in midfield. This was one of his best nights for the Socceroos, even if the big win that Postecoglou hoped for didn't materialise.
He will be a key man for the Socceroos in their two-legged playoffs against surprising Syria in October.
3. Resilient Thailand
On a bitterly cold night in Australia's sporting capital, six of the 11 Thailand players came out wearing gloves at kick off, compared to none from the home side. And they had extra motivation to perform well to honour two national officials who were killed last week in a car accident, including team manager Nattapong Somsinsawas.
Tactically, the Thais were a different side to the one that faced the Socceroos in Bangkok just nine months ago when they impressed with their attacking flair in a 2-2 draw.
That team was coached by ex-star striker Kiatisuk Senamuang and played a daring 4-4-2 formation against the reigning Asian champions. Since then, Serbian Milovan Rajevac, a former defender, has taken over, and they have become more compact and harder to break down. They rode their luck at times, but put in a strong defensive shift, especially in the first half.
Even so, the Southeast Asian champions had their moments in attack, and their one-and-only overseas based player Chanathip "Messi J" Songkrasin was at the heart of it.
Chanathip, who plays for Consadole Sapporo in the J-League, had an absorbing battle with central defender Trent Sainsbury and kept Mark Milligan, switched to midfield, on his toes.
Teerasil Dangda, who picked up a double against the Aussies last November, was also dangerous. Just before half-time, goalkeeper Mat Ryan was forced out of his area to bring Teerasil down, conceding a free kick in a dangerous area.
And Teerasil thought he'd won a penalty immediately after the break when he punished an Australian turnover to burst into the box. But after Sainsbury brought him down from behind, the Hong Kong referee waved play on.
The Thai equaliser, from the industrious Pokklaw A-Nan in the 82nd minute, was well deserved and for four minutes they were on course for a famous draw away from home before Leckie's winner.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.