Australia’s world cup hopes head to Sydney after late Syria equaliser

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By , Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    In the opening moments, with Aziz Behich attempting to retrieve the ball to restart play quickly, the Syrian player holding it tumbled backward, as if struck on the bridge of the nose by the might of Thor’s Hammer.

    Minutes later, a lofted ball saw an unmolested Syrian attacker wilt and crumple to the cow turf, the weight of existence apparently causing him to keel and appeal. Clearly, with five minutes of the first leg elapsed, this was going to be a scruffy affair.

    The pitch turned making routine passes into highly tremulous actions, a loamy, soft, unpredictable slab that it was. Mark Milligan was victim of a scissoring tackle from behind, and Australia were made to scamper back frantically as Syria burst out on the counter. The demeanour of the match was as expected; Syria giving up possession, pressing only as the Australia passed well into their half, with runners locked and loaded to sprint at a half-second’s notice.

    Josh Risdon and Behich, two natural defenders, began at the wing-back positions, and Matt Jurman was inserted into the back-three, all players with natural, comfortable defensive inclinations. Mark Milligan and Aaron Mooy made up one of the more defensive-minded midfield pairings, of all the combinations available, and Tom Rogic began on the bench. This was a conservative approach from Postecoglou, away from home, under difficult circumstances.

    Matt Leckie, just before the half hour mark, skied a shot from inside the box. He has been scoring prolifically in Germany, but was found wanting here, gifted the first real chance of the match. Yes, it took half an hour for the first clear chance to emerge, save for Mark Milligan’s opportunistic shot from distance; the surface made coherence and clarity very difficult, with heavy touches and awful bobbles commonplace.

    Matthew Leckie

    Omar Al Soma, the towering Syrian striker, was seen straying into an offside position about a dozen times in the first half. This was more a result of the number and manner of lofted passes sent toward him, with very little terrestrial play for him to latch onto. In combination with Omar Khalbin, Al Soma almost fashioned the evening’s opening goal, with Khalbin turning Al Soma’s snapped cross wide at the near post.

    The Syrians were placing their defensive line a little higher than perhaps Australia had anticipated, and Australia were exploiting the space behind them, largely with longer passes rapped diagonally off the velveteen boot of Aaron Mooy.

    As it happened, it was Australia who took the lead, with Matt Leckie and Robbie Kruse combining in the Syrian penalty area. Leckie, restored finally to an advanced position, darted toward the byline on the right of the box, cut back sharply, and shot with purpose toward the far post. Kruse, also playing in the attacking midfield, turned the ball in lightly, barely hanging a toenail out to redirect the ball.

    It’s about time Leckie was returned to his natural habitat, and this was immediate justification. Leckie met a corner not long after, leaping and hanging gracefully in the air, but heading over. He is a remarkable athlete, whose attacking potency seems to be propped up primarily by confidence, more precisely his confidence in the knowledge that he’ll enjoy plentiful opportunities to make an attacking impression over the course of a match. Removing him from the unfamiliar, hazardous and scrutinised position of wing-back should be a permanent adjustment.

    Half time came with Syria having scratched out one-and-a-half chances, maybe, and Australia leading and firmly on top. Milligan was getting hacked to pieces, but was not wilting. Mooy had sent in some lovely lofted passes, and Kruse was making some elegant oblique runs, keeping the Syrian defence on edge. Australia had 60 per cent of the possession in the first half, and were passing as accurately as could be expected under the circumstances.

    Mahmoud Al Maowas struck the first shot in anger of the second half, with Mat Ryan beating the effort away well, down low to his left. A few minutes later, Tomi Juric managed to hit the post, then hit it again from the rebound, something I can’t remember seeing before. The match was opening up a little, to be sure. An Australian corner was taken short, and was quickly converted into a Syrian counter-attack, with Milos Degenek thwarting it in full flight, illegally, earning a booking.

    The Syrians seemed only capable of raising their intensity in fits and starts, with Australia negotiating the second half like a veteran surfer might a rolling set of truculent breakers, not panicking, easing the board through the swell. There were some worrying moments though; Degenek had to make an extremely important block, point blank, right in front of goal. Al Soma would have scored if not for it.

    A second Australian goal was needed, and Nikita Rukavytsya was brought on for Josh Risdon with that in mind. Matt Leckie was moved back into the right-wing-back spot, and immediately committed a poor foul deep in his own defensive third, beginning a spell of multiple Syrian set pieces, one after the other, all of which were launched with venom into the Socceroos’ penalty area.

    Mass Luongo was brought on for Kruse with 20 minutes to go, perhaps to try and impart a becalming hand over a contest tottering dizzily toward raggedness. Syria were forcing Australia into turnovers, playing with panting breath, buoyed by the whistles and shrieks of the crowd.

    Aaron Mooy Socceroos Australia Football 2017

    Firas Al Khatib, the Syrian legend, now 34, was brought on to add further oomph. Al Khatib didn’t take long to affect things; his driving run into the box ended in a cross struck from out of bounds, missed by the officials. Al Soma headed straight into Ryan from close range, and the ball spun away onto the post; it was the standout moment of an acutely uncomfortable period for Australia.

    Or at least it had been the standout moment until a penalty was awarded to Syria, with Leckie – a duck out of water contesting a defensive header in his own box – the apparent offender. Replays showed very minimal contact, perhaps an arm extended slightly, while contesting a header with the 6 ft 4 inch Al Soma, and it was the Syrian striker that lined up to take the spot kick. He crashed it high into the net, and it was 1-1 with five minutes to go. Australia were snorting at the decision, but for Syria it was the reward for a prolonged period of telling pressure.

    Sainsbury had a header batted away by Ibrahim Almeh, a fine reaction save. Time was slipping away, worth counting in seconds more than minutes. Mouaiad Al Ajjan, the left back, smashed in a swerving shot from distance that took a fully airborne Ryan to repel. Syria weren’t just content with the draw, they wanted to win. Suddenly, the fact Australia hadn’t made it out of their half for some time descended; the Roos had suffered a damaging late-game fade, both in vigour and invention.

    The match ended with Australia relieved to hear to final whistle. This was not the result Postecoglou would have wanted, another winless outcome away from home. Australia will be favourites in the second leg, armed with an away goal, but the Syrians’ stirring second-half performance will give them confidence they can pull off an upset.

    Evan Morgan Grahame
    Evan Morgan Grahame

    Evan Morgan Grahame is a Melbourne-based journalist. Gleaning what he could from his brief career as a painter, the canvas of the football pitch is now his subject of contemplation, with the beautiful game sketching new, intriguing compositions every week. He has been one of The Roar's Expert columnists since 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_M_G.