Syria kept alive their improbable bid to make a first World Cup by holding Australia to a 1-1 draw on Thursday in the first leg of their continental play-off.
The West Asians, playing their “home” qualifiers at a neutral venue given the civil war in their country, snatched a draw five minutes from time at the Hang Jebat Stadium in Malaysia through Omar Al Somah’s contentious penalty. Robbie Kruse had earlier given Australia, the reigning Asian champions, the lead five minutes before half time.
The result means the tie is delicately poised going into the return leg in Sydney in five days’ time. The winner of the Asian play-off will next month face another two-legged showdown to reach Russia, against the fourth-placed team from the Concacaf section.
Seeking to make a fourth consecutive World Cup, Australia went in front just before the interval, when Mathew Leckie cut in from the hosts’ byline and shot across goal. Kruse provided the telling touch, diverting the ball past home goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma. The VfL Bochum winger, celebrating his 29th birthday, last scored for the national team two years ago.
Not long into in the second half, Australia nearly doubled their lead, however Tomi Juric twice hit the post in quick succession.
To their credit, Syria pushed for an equaliser in extremely humid conditions in Melaka, with Omar Al Somah and Omar Khribin their principal threats. On 78 minutes, captain Faris Al Khatib, only just introduced from the substitute’s bench, pulled the ball back to Al Somah. Yet the striker’s header cannoned off Australia goalkeeper Mat Ryan and then onto the post.
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Syria were not to be denied, though. Six minutes from time, Leckie was ajudged to have fouled Al Somah as both players leapt for the ball in the Australia penalty area. The referee pointed to the spot, much to the visitors’ surprise, leaving Al Somah to step up and draw his side level.
It was the Al Ahli Jeddah frontman’s second international goal since earlier this year ending a five-year absence from the national team.