Tim Cahill brought up half a century for Australia, and Syria’s implausible World Cup run crashed to its conclusion.
He scored twice in Sydney on Tuesday, once to draw his side level and once more to pull them through, a big-name player underlining his big-game mentality.
Captain for the night, Cahill carried the hosts to 2-1 on the night after extra time and to 3-2 on aggregate.
They had survived Syria’s courage and conviction throughout two legs of a continental play-off to move to within two matches of Russia next summer.
Australia’s quest for a fourth consecutive World Cup appearance stumbles on.
At times at the ANZ Stadium, it seemed set to cease. Omar Al Somah had given Syria an early lead. Right at the death, only the width of a post denied him from forcing the tie into a penalty shootout.
With 120 minutes played, Al Somah’s free kick cannoned off the upright. Already down to 10 men, Syria proved down on their luck, too. Ultimately, their latest attempt to make a first global finals concluded in agony.
Asian champions, Australia survived, but only just. Next month, they face another all-or-nothing play-off against a team from the Concacaf section.
At least they still have another two-legged showdown to endure.
Manager Ange Postecoglou continues, as well, for as he conceded 24 hours before the return leg in Sydney, the second clash with Syria could have been his last in charge of his country. His future appeared dependent on progression.
For inspiration, though, he looked back, recalling Cahill, 37, to the starting line up. The veteran forward responded with a redemptive double.
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Success secure, Australia had displayed significant resolve to rebound from an opening upset. On six minutes, Mark Milligan’s mistake allowed Tamer Haj Mohamad to play in Al Somah, who fired high past Mat Ryan in the home goal. Al Somah had a third goal in three successive qualifiers. Syria had the lead.
It did not last long. Seven more minutes had elapsed when Cahill grabbed his first, meeting Mathew Leckie’s delicious cross to head back across Syria goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma.
With it, the former Everton star climbed to 49 international goals.
He increased it to 50 in the second half of extra time, but in between Australia had threatened and Syria had Mahmoud Al Mawas sent off. Cahill’s effort was blocked on the line, Tom Rogic went close on more than one occasion, and substitute Nikita Rukavytsya should placed his volley anywhere but straight at Alma.
Yet Syria stood strong. Sometimes, they threatened on the break. Without the suspended Omar Khribin, they relied all too heavily on Al Somah, and as the match wore on, on captain Firas Al Khatib also.
However, they dug in, even when their legs would not carry them as far. Sometimes, they rode their luck.
When Al Mawas was booked again not long into extra time, fortune looked to have deserted them. Soon, Australia took advantage of their numerical superiority. On 109 minutes, Cahill rose high towards Robbie Kruse’s cross and directed a header past Alma. The Syrian got a glove to the ball, but it was not enough.
Cahill had his half century, and for that moment it felt as if he would trade every other one for that. The ANZ Stadium celebrated. Postecoglou breathed a hefty sigh of relief. Cahill had repaid his manager with a captain’s contribution.
So Australia march on, Syria bow out. An improbable bid had finally run its course. Another one just about sustains.
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