“He’s no different to any other player,” Ange Postecoglou said of Aaron Mooy before the Socceroos’ crunch second-leg tie against Syria.
That remark wafted out into the air, and settled lazily alongside the manager’s earlier utterances; “fresh legs”, “par for the course”, each phrase sending unwelcome twitches spasming down the collective eyelid of an already anxious Australian public.
The news that had lingered throughout the day, like elevating flatulence, that Mooy would be benched, caused pinched noses and waving hands around the country. Mooy was our best player in the first leg of this tie and is one of the few national team members getting regular game time in a top-tier European league.
There was no injury or illness to point to. A yellow card – with another, if awarded in this leg, bringing a potential ban with it – was not an adequate excuse either.
No, this was a purely tactical decision, to leave out one of our best players and – based on the most recent evidence against this opponent – our most productive playmaker. A gamble, to be sure, made in a match with so much at stake.
The omission almost drowned out the indignation at seeing Matt Leckie returned to a full-back role, and Brad Smith restored to the starting line-up… almost.
In spite of Mooy’s absence, it was in fact a very attacking starting XI, with Tom Rogic and Tim Cahill brought in, as well as James Troisi, and the aforementioned attack-minded wing-backs. This was, remember, a game in which simply a clean sheet would be enough to progress.
Syria scored after five minutes, and that clean sheet was shattered. Mark Milligan gave the ball away in midfield, and the lapse led to Omar Al Soma being played clear into the Australia box. He finished unerringly, spanking the ball over Mat Ryan.
In the moments following, Smith – starved of playing time recently, save for a single cup appearance for Bournemouth – went down with an injury that immediately looked serious enough to force a substitution.
Milligan’s error – a player so experienced and usually so reliable – had landed a hammer blow to the Roos’ confidence. Smith, having played on for a few minutes, was subbed for… Mooy, with ten minutes gone. It would have been farcical if it wasn’t so winding.
But then Cahill scored an equaliser, and sweet air rushed back into the lungs, a glorious reprieve, manna from heaven.
Leckie, in an advanced position, rushed down the wing and clipped an early cross into the box. The Syrian keeper lurched and hesitated, the ball spinning away from him. Cahill was unmarked, and the ball was dropping right onto his head. The move morphed suddenly from hopeful to inevitable, and Cahill nodded the ball into the net. This match was almost too much to bear, and 15 minutes hadn’t yet elapsed.
Australia now had Robbie Kruse and Leckie in the wing-back spots, and it didn’t take long for Syria to make an attempt to exploit those areas. A lofted pass was sumptuously controlled on the left and the ball was then clipped toward the right. It spun a few agonising centimetres over the towering Al Soma, who might have scored were he a little taller. Kruse was not there to challenge the Syrian, and the marking in those deeper wing zones were radiating as areas of weakness.
Troisi had a shot parried wide, Ibrahim Almeh at full stretch. Milos Degenek had to make a hasty clearance, wrapping his boot around a Syrian attacker from behind, in the box, near enough to head height. The game was far more end-to-end than Postecoglou would have wanted.
With 25 minutes gone, Mooy slid through Kruse, who crossed for Rogic, who shot wide. Mooy then flicked through Troisi, who crossed for Cahill, whose side-footed shot was deflected wide.
At the heart of all of this, Mooy was already making a mockery of his short-lived stint on the bench.
Leckie shot firmly, having cut back sharply on the wing, but Almeh saved well. This was familiar; Australia were creating plenty of opportunities, but not taking them. Most of the productive progress was being made down the left, with Mooy pulling the strings, albeit hamstrung slightly by Kruse’s habit of wandering offside.
Syria were placing ten men behind the ball as soon as Australia past the halfway line. The Socceroos were pushing numbers forward to match the personnel, with Milligan holding a reserved position. Fouls were common, and Milligan and Leckie earned yellow cards that may keep them out of any future playoff games. The match laboured toward the halftime whistle. The Roos had dominated, but things were still locked in wretched parity.
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The second half began tetchily, with Rogic yapping with a Syrian tackler who’d been nipping at his heels. Mooy had a stud applied to his calf, and went down, but no whistle was heard.
Australia again assumed control of the play, with their red-shirted foes retreating in formation, teeth gritted and senses sharpened. Kruse and Leckie were – rightfully, considering the Syrian approach – playing as wingers, barely a thought spared for defensive positioning. Syria were feeding off bare counter-attacking scraps, flinging hopeful crosses into areas where outnumbered teammates had equally bare hopes of profiting.
As the hour mark approached, Firas Al Khatib – the catalyst for Syria’s second-half comeback in the first leg – was readied on the touchline.
The visitors were unconcerned with the ball over the top, and their defensive line was placed higher as a result, which drew the Australian full-backs up to make those runs Cahill could not, which created space on the counter, and Kruse’s inability to hit crosses with his left foot reduced his threat dashing toward the byline.
It also meant the midfield was compressed, making it hard to pick passes and play through the lines. Indeed, this was a gut-churning affair, and Australia were doing their best wading through it. Ibrahim Almeh kicked away a fine Rogic shot, capping off a rare sequence where play was allowed to run through channels of clear air.
Nikita Rukavytsya was subbed on for Troisi, and was pushed out onto the left wing, one presumes to place a left-footed player there. Kruse was moved into the middle, his second positional adjustment of the evening. With 15 minutes remaining, the teams were still locked together, barging and jostling, both furiously aware of the prize on offer, both fuelled by the distant scent of Russia 2018.
Rukavytsya sliced a cross straight out of play. Al Khatib, slipping at the vital moment, inadvertently scuppered an extremely dangerous attack. Mardik Mardikian went down for an unnecessarily long time with cramp. This match was fraying at the edges, along with the patience of the 42,000-strong crowd.
Added time arrived, and the teams were static, both sides anticipating the inevitable slog of extra time. The final whistle went.
The referee needed a substitution for the game to carry on, with the fourth official replacing him in the middle. Three minutes in, the local fans broke out into a raucous cheer; no, not a goal, but Mahmoud Al Maowas had picked up his second yellow card and was sent off. Surely, the numerical advantage would take Australia over the top?
Mooy sent the free kick whirling over the byline. Kruse sent a cross spiralling similarly out of play not long after. Tomi Juric replaced Rogic, who slunk off. Rogic had played well but – almost personifying the recent form of his team – had not made any tangible impression on the score.
The Syrians were making a four-course banquet of every foul, milking the clock for minutes at a time. Almeh made a snap stop from a Rukavytsya volley. The first half of extra time ended, and penalties loomed. The teams hydrated, kneaded the lactic acid out of their cramping muscles, and resumed.
Shots flew. Counter attacks budded then died. Fouls punctuated the game. Then Kruse wriggled free, and clipped a cross into the centre of the Syrian box.
The cross had no power behind it, and whoever met it would have to flex every neck muscle to score. Lucky, then, for Australia, it was Tim Cahill – our greatest ever goalscorer, and one of football’s greatest ever forehead-artists – who arrived on cue.
Shoulder-to-shoulder with a Syrian foe, Cahill threw his head violently at the floating ball, sending it crashing through the limp hand of Almeh, and into the net.
The crowd erupted, roaring in pure relief and fiery ecstasy. Two goals from Tim, two more gilded pages added to his glittering Socceroos story.
Milos Degenek made a heroic challenge in his own box to keep Syria out. Juric held opponents at bay, shielding the ball, keeping the game-clock ticking down. Minutes remained, seconds even. Syria had a free kick, with Al Soma over it. He walloped the ball against the post, with Ryan beaten and flailing. The home crowd writhed.
The final whistle went, and Australia had made it, with Cahill the hero again.
This tie was torturous, much more difficult than it should have been. Syria are a team that haven’t been able to play at home for seven years, a country wracked with problems much larger than football, where 100 professional footballers have been abducted and disappeared by the regime since the beginning of the revolution in 2011.
Almost man-to-man, the Socceroos have better players than the Syrians, to a degree that should have negated any fairy tale momentum the visitors may have accrued over the course of qualifying. Syria flew commercial economy from Malaysia, and were the width of a goalpost away from knocking Australia out.
We should celebrate, we should hold Cahill – who played all 120 minutes, and is scorer, now, of 50 goals for his country – aloft as a true sporting hero, and we should look forward to meeting Honduras, Panama or the United States.
Perhaps that’s enough for now, and a cynical postmortem isn’t necessary. Russia is still within reach.
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