Syria's World Cup dream still on after Al Soma penalty against Socceroos
MALACCA -- Three quick thoughts from Syria 1-1 Australia in the first leg of their World Cup playoff.
1. Syria's World Cup dream lives on
Australia's World Cup hopes hang in the balance, while Syria continue to dream following their AFC playoff first leg on Thursday night.
After Robbie Kruse put the Socceroos ahead in the 40th minute, the Syrians equalised through Omar Al Soma from the penalty spot, ahead of Tuesday's second leg in Sydney.
After Syria's heroic 2-2 draw away to Iran last month, it is dangerous to write off Asia's Cinderella team as they look to overcome the odds to book their ticket to Russia 2018.
Apart from having to play on neutral soil in Malaysia, they dealt with the unavailability due to injury of their first choice centre-backs Omar Midani and the highly fancied Ahmad Al Salih, who plays his club football with China's Henan Jianye.
Both Omars -- Khribin, of Al Hilal, and Al Soma, of Al Ahli -- started up front, but captain Firas Al Khatib was left on the bench.
Syria applied early pressure when Khribin was brought down by the scrambling Trent Sainsbury on the edge of the box in the ninth minute. The subsequent free kick from Al Somah cannoned off the Australian wall for a corner. Then we got an early glimpse of Syria's counterattacking expertise when winger Yousef Kalfa made a fine run down the left in the 22nd minute before Milos Degenek intervened to force a corner.
They had a golden chance to open the scoring in the 34th minute when the two Omars combined, with Al Soma evading Aziz Behich on the right to find Khribin at the near post, who blasted narrowly wide.
In the 68th minute, Khribin's free kick from the edge of the box hit the wall and went over before the Syrians applied pressure with a succession of corners. And just three minutes after coming on in the 75th minute, Al Khatib set up a wonderful chance for Al Soma. Luckily for the Socceroos, the ball rebounded off the post and into the arms of keeper Mat Ryan.
Syria's much-deserved equaliser came in the 85th minute when the Iranian referee pointed to the spot after Al Soma felt to the ground after contact from Mathew Leckie. The penalty may have been dubious, but the Al Ahli man drilled his spot kick down the middle.
Australia then had to rely on Ryan to make a heroic save from Mouaiad Al Ajjan's vicious shot in stoppage time.
2. Kruse's crucial, rare strike
Kruse's lack of goals has been a black mark on an international career that started in 2011. But when the Socceroos were searching for a breakthrough, the Bochum forward scored for only the fifth time as he earned his 58th international cap.
The hard work was done by the energetic Leckie, who accepted Degenek's pass out of defence. Pushing to the right byline, he cleverly evaded a defender before cutting the ball back with his left foot. Kruse made a timely run to get the faintest of touches to give Australia a crucial away goal just five minutes before half-time.
Thursday was the former Brisbane Roar speedster's 29th birthday, and it was his first goal since the 2015 Asian Cup, when he scored the second in a 4-0 stroll over Oman.
This was a far more meaningful strike.
3. Attacking Ange's defensive twist
As expected, the Socceroos didn't deviate from their contentious three-at-the-back formation, with ex-Sydney stopper Matt Jurman earning his first senior cap as he took over from the suspended Bailey Wright on the left-hand side.
But with one eye on the speedy and counterattacking Syrians, coach Ange Postecoglou selected two specialist full-backs to support the back three, with overlapping Josh Risdon and Behich slotting into a four-man midfield, in front of Mark Milligan and Aaron Mooy.
Left on the bench was record scorer Tim Cahill and Celtic playmaker Tom Rogic, with the Aussies making three changes from September's home match against Thailand. When defending, Risdon and Behich would drop back to effectively form a resolute back five.
The Socceroos lacked composure in the first half. After Mooy set Tomi Juric on his way down the right, his pass inside went behind Kruse in the 19th minute.
A minute later, Milligan had a first shot on target from long range to see goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma tip away. And then Leckie blasted over the bar after a cut back from a good position in the 29th minute.
Juric hit the woodwork with the consecutive shots in the second half, when the Aussies led 1-0. But cooler and calmer heads will be needed in the second leg to see off the spirited Syrians.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.