Syria World Cup dream still alive; South Koreans progress

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

Syria’s fairytale bid to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup continues after they sealed a playoff berth in Tuesday’s 2-2 third-round draw with giants Iran at the Azadi Stadium.

The Syrians got off to a dream start when Tamer Haj Mohamad fired them ahead on the rebound, after opposition keeper Alireza Salimi could only parry Omar Al Soma’s blistering freekick back into the danger area.

Sardar Azmoun equalised for the hosts on the stroke of halftime, poking home from close range after reacting quickest to a loose ball inside the six-yard box.

Azmoun then struck again four minutes after the hour mark with another poacher’s strike, and it looked as though Syria’s remarkable run would be coming to an end.

But, right at the death, the visitors hit their opponents on the break and Al Soma clinically fired through Salimi’s legs to earn his side what turned out to be a crucial point.

Despite needing other results to go their way if they were to stay alive in their hunt for a place at Russia 2018, that was exactly what happened for the Syrians.

Over at the Bunyodkor Stadium, a 0-0 draw between Uzbekistan and Korea Republic saw the latter automatically progress as the second-placed side in Group A, along with the already-qualified Iranians.

However, it also allowed Syria to overtake the Uzbeks in third spot and they will now face off with the third-placed side in Group B with a spot in the inter-confederation playoffs up for grabs.

The winner of that tie will play the fourth-ranked side in the final round of qualifying in CONCACAF for a spot at next year’s World Cup, with the likes of United States, Honduras and Panama all potential opponents.

Tuesday’s final Group A clash saw China finish on a high with 2-1 triumph over bottom side Qatar in a dead rubber at the Khalifa International Stadium.

It was the Qataris who broke the deadlock through an Akram Afif effort in the 47th minute, but goals by Xiao Zhi and Wu Lei in the final 16 minutes saw the visitors pull off a spirited comeback.