SYDNEY (Agencies): Tim Cahill rolled back the years to rescue Australia’s World Cup qualification hopes on Tuesday evening with two goals for Ange Postecoglou’s side against 10-man Syria, who took the Socceroos to extra time before finally relenting.
Omar Al Soma gave Syria the lead before Cahill’s double — one in the first half and the second in extra time — guaranteed Australia will face either Panama or Honduras for a place in the draw for next year’s World Cup finals in Russia.
The Syrians had Mahmoud Al Mawas sent off four minutes into the first period of extra time but were just centimetres from qualifying when Al Soma almost claimed a second of the game as 120 minutes of play was coming to an end, only for his free kick to smash off Maty Ryan’s left post.
It was a defiant end to a remarkable campaign for the Syrians, who defied the odds to make it this far. Australia held an advantage going into the game thanks to Robbie Kruse’s away goal in the first leg 1-1 draw, but against a Syrian side boasting the talents of Al Soma that was always likely to be a slender margin.
The Al Ahli striker dismissed any concerns the Syrians had over the absence of Omar Khrbin, who was suspended after picking up a booking in the first leg, showing his customary cool head in front of goal, taking two touches after Tamer Haj Mohammad’s through ball to smash his shot above Ryan and into the roof of the goal.
The goal came after the Syrians punished Australia’s sloppy play in the centre of the park, Mohammad calmly dispossessing Mark Milligan before surging towards the home side’s defensive line and feeding the ball to Al Soma, who finished ruthlessly. As significant as Al Soma’s early goal was, the loss soon after of Brad Smith was to have a major impact for the Socceroos.
Aaron Mooy had, surprisingly, started the game on the bench but, with a change forced upon him due to Smith’s thigh injury, Postecoglou introduced the midfielder 11 minutes into the game.
The Huddersfield Town man, one of Australia’s stand-out performers in the first leg, slotted into the centre of midfield and, alongside Tom Rogic, ensured the Socceroos dominated possession in a similar manner to how they did in the opening game.
By the 13th minute, it was another talismanic figure who had shown the way for Australia when Cahill levelled the scores. It was a trademark goal for the 37-year-old, who steered his header into the top corner following Mathew Leckie’s inch-perfect curling cross from the right after being released down the win by Rogic.
Cahill’s header settled the Socceroos’ nerves but the failings of this campaign continued as Postecoglou’s side controlled possession without finding the back of the net for what remained of regulation time. Leckie was denied by Ibrahim Alma at the second attempt before Rogic hit the side-netting late in the half, with the pattern that dictated the end of the first period carried into the second.
Rogic tried his luck from range and Leckie glanced his header wide before Al Soma could only find the arms of Ryan as the Syrians underlined the threat they still carried. Alma, meanwhile, was sharp enough to deny Rogic as the game went into the final quarter before, seconds later, the Celtic man curled another narrowly wide following the resulting corner.
Cahill saw his attempt late in regulation time deflected wide for a corner, leaving the game to go into extra-time. Syria’s hopes took a major blow when Al Mawas was sent off for a second bookable offence when he upended Kruse, but still Australia struggled to break through.
Then, as so often in the past, came Cahill, rising to head home Kruse’s cross for his 50th international goal for Australia.
Any thoughts that the game was over were allayed in the 120th minute when Al Soma stepped up to strike his right-footed free kick from 20 yards beyond the Socceroos wall, but the ball came back off the post to leave a very relieved Australia to advance.
Ange Postecoglou hailed Tim Cahill as one of Australia’s greatest athletes after the ageless superstar headed the Socceroos a step closer to a fourth consecutive World Cup.
“That’s why Timmy’s Timmy. He’s is a great Australian sportsman,” Postecoglou said. “He’s got an international record that stacks up against the best.”
Of his 109th-minute match winner, Cahill added: “I knew I was going to score. You’ve got to write your own script. I said to Tommy Rogic if you don’t take your moment then I’m going to take it.
“For me, I’m just glad the boss gave me the opportunity and believed in me to leave me out there [for 120 minutes]. “It’s a responsibility when I play. This is my passion. I will run to the end for this manager and these players.”