Tim Cahill's heroics won't distract from another poor Socceroos performance
SYDNEY -- Reigning Asian champions Australia were pushed all the way by Syria in Sydney on Tuesday night, needing extra time to win 2-1.
Ange Postecoglou's side were in strife early on, going behind after just five minutes thanks to a breakaway goal to Omar Al Soma.
Socceroos legend Tim Cahill was on hand to once again save his side though, scoring two headed goals to help book Australia's spot in an intercontinental playoff with CONCACAF's fourth-best side -- likely to be Panama or Honduras.
Australia's World Cup dream lives on. Aside from that, there's wasn't much heart to be taken from the performance. The time will come a time when 37-year-old Cahill will not be able to save the Socceroos. Tuesday, luckily, was not that day.
Platitudes about winning ugly, and fighting to the end, will be offered up over the coming days but they will not paper over the massive cracks that currently run through Postecoglou's side.
The 3-3-3-1 formation -- designed to get the best out of the likes of Tom Rogic, Aaron Mooy and James Troisi -- has left Australia far too weak at the back, and strangely stifled in attack. Time after time, Postecoglou's inside men got in the way of each other. It was left to the likes of Mat Leckie and Robbie Kruse out wide to fashion most of the Socceroos' chances.
The Socceroos boss made a massive gamble in benching the likes of Mooy and Tomi Juric, and on the evidence of the starting XI's performance against Syria, it would be hard to argue that his move paid off.
Manager rating out of 10
5.5 -- Postecoglou will no doubt be typically bullish about the 2-1 result and, since the Socceroos have progressed, the manager shades his rating on the right side of five. There is, however, plenty of work for the former Melbourne Victory boss to do.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Mat Ryan, 6 -- There wasn't much Ryan could do for Al Soma's goal. Outside of that, the sweeper-keeper did well enough when called upon.
DF Milos Degenek, 6 -- One terrible air-swing aside, it was pretty quiet night for Degenek. The 23-year-old does not offer too much in terms of penetrating passes, but seems to be building a decent partnership with right wing-back Leckie.
DF Trent Sainsbury, 7.5 -- Clearly Australia's best option in defence. With so many of his teammates off their game, the Jiangsu Suning man played with an assuredness that will be desperately missed if he is to get injured ahead of the intercontinental playoff. Someone order a large swathe of cotton wool!
DF Matt Jurman, 6.5 -- The former Sydney FC has made the most of Bailey Wright's absence, turning in another solid display. No doubt will be in the mix for another start come November.
WB Mat Leckie, 8 -- Cahill will take all the headlines, but Leckie should be credited for putting in an excellent shift. Down a goal and with the tie in the balance, Leckie's assist for Australia's equaliser so good that it left little for Cahill to do but put it in the net. Unfortunately, Leckie's yellow card means he will miss the next match.
WB Brad Smith, 5 -- Subbed off due to injury after just 10 minutes. Surely Smith won't start again for the Socceroos until he is match-fit?
MF Mark Milligan, 4 -- His early mistake handed Syria their crucial away goal, and it didn't get better from there for the Melbourne Victory man. Wasteful in possession and slow in transition, it was an off night for Milligan on a day when Australia desperately needed him to play well.
MF Robbie Kruse, 7 -- A typically topsy-turvy night for one of the Socceroos' most frustrating players. Pushed out into the left wing-back position once Smith went off injured, Kruse nevertheless conspired to be caught offside more than a handful of times. Shifted into the No. 10 role for a bit, then back out wide again, it's hard to be critical of the 29-year-old as he was never allowed to settle.
Then, just when the match looked like it would go to penalties, Kruse worked himself into the right place at the right time to tee up Cahill's 109th-minute winner. A few more games with Bochum should have Kruse finding his feet just at the right time for Australia.
MF James Troisi, 6 -- Offered a few moments of brilliance, but too often got crowded out by Rogic and Mooy. Subbed off after 73 minutes.
MF Tom Rogic, 6.5 -- The Celtic star looked most likely to break the deadlock in the second half. Twice denied by Syria goalkeeper Ibrahim Alam, Rogic faded as the game went on, before being subbed off five minutes into extra time.
FW Tim Cahill, 10 -- It just had to be Tim Cahill. Eyebrows were raised when the former Everton star was named in Australia's starting XI, but what Cahill has lost in pace, he certainly makes up for in guile. Rarely seen in possession, the veteran nevertheless scored his 49th and 50th international goals in yet another display that will go down in Socceroos folklore.
MF Aaron Mooy, 6 -- Strangely left on the bench by Postecoglou at the start of the match, it only took 10 minutes for the Huddersfield Town star to enter the fray. Unfortunately, Postecoglou's snub seemed to have taken the wind out of Mooy's sails. The midfielder still appeared a class above the rest with a few fine touches -- but working out where Mooy best fits in the Australian system is something the Socceroos boss needs to work out, fast.
MF Nikita Rukavytsya, 7 -- A cameo that the Maccabi Haifa attacker will take heart from. Subbed on for Troisi in the 73rd minute, Rukavytsya was brilliantly denied by Syria keeper Alam in the first half of extra time when few other Socceroos looked threatening.
FW Tomi Juric, N/A -- Subbed on for Rogic in the 95th minute with little time to make a difference.
Mike Wise is the associate editor for ESPN FC Australia and New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter @wisey_9.