Cahill rescues Socceroos as Syria’s fairytale comes to an end

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

Tim Cahill rolled back the years with a cracking double to hand Australia a 2-1 win over Syria on Tuesday and keep alive their hopes of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Reinstated to the Socceroos starting XI after being left out in the first leg, Cahill proved to be the hero as he equalised to cancel out Omar Al Soma’s opener for the Syrians, before netting an extra-time winner to secure a 3-2 aggregate win.

Australia, looking to qualify for a fourth consecutive World Cup, will now advance to the inter-confederation playoffs and have one final hurdle to overcome in the form of a CONCACAF opponent.

For now, however, they have at least done what was required of them but they certainly had to survive a real scare against a Syrian outfit looking to keep their improbable World Cup dream alive.

Following a 1-1 draw in last Thursday’s first leg, it was the Socceroos who entered the return encounter as favourites with home advantage and a crucial away goal to their names.

But barely six minutes had been played at Stadium Australia when Syria turned the tie on its head.

A misplaced pass by Australia captain Mark Milligan was seized upon by Tamer Haj Mohamad and he proceeded to release Al Soma, who produced a fine finish over the head of Mathew Ryan to open the scoring.

Nonetheless, the hosts took just seven minutes to respond when Cahill justified coach Ange Postecoglou’s faith in him, making no mistake in planting a header into the back of the net after being picked out by Mathew Leckie’s brilliant cross.

Buoyed at pulling level, Australia began to raise their intensity in search of the go-ahead goal.

A speculative effort from James Troisi forced Ibrahim Alma into a smart save down low, before a close-range attempt by Cahill was kept out by an important block from Zaher Midani.

Cahill was proving to be a real handful for the opposition defence and Alma had to be alert to gather a loose ball after initially spilling a shot by Leckie, just as the former was about to pounce inside the six-yard box.

The better chances continued to fall Australia’s way after the restart and Leckie came close with a glancing header from an Aaron Mooy corner on the hour mark, but the visitors did look threatening on the counter.

Nonetheless, Alma was proving to be in excellent form and produced another fine save to deny Tom Rogic in the 69th minute.

With neither side able to find the winner in regulation time, the tie – already exhilarating as it was – then went into extra-time.

More drama followed in the 94th minute when the Syrians were reduced to ten men; Mahmoud Al Mawas being shown a second yellow following a late challenge on Kruse.

Shortly before that, Australia substitute Nikita Rukavytsya had beaten the offside trap and fired away a powerful drive that Alma was again equal to.

Rukavytsya had another chance in the 105th minute when he was picked out by Mooy unmarked at the near post, only for the Syria custodian to refuse to be beaten.

But, if there was ever one man that was going to prove the difference, it was Cahill and that truly proved to be the case.

With 11 minutes remaining before the dreaded penalty shootout, Kruse did well to hang a ball up into the box and it was Cahill who popped up with a trademark header, which Alma got a hand to but just could not keep out.

He may no longer be starring in the Premier League for Everton but, instead, is quietly winding his career down in the A-League.

And he may well be into his 38th year by the time the World Cup gets underway in Russia next June.

Still, at this rate and following this match-winning display, Cahill remains Australia’s most important player, at least for the immediate future.

AUSTRALIA: Mathew Ryan, Milos Degenek, Trent Sainbury, Matthew Jurman, Mathew Leckie, Mark Milligan, Brad Smith (Aaron Mooy 11’), Tom Rogic (Tomi Juric 96’), Robbie Kruse, James Troisi (Nikita Rukavytsya 73’), Tim Cahill.

SYRIA: Ibrahim Alma, Fahd Youssef, Jehad Al Baour, Zaher Midani, Moayad Ajan, Tamer Haj Mohamad, Hamid Mido (Israa Hamwiah 75’), Mahmoud Al Mawas, Mardik Mardikian (Osama Omari 90’), Oday Al Jafal (Firas Al Khatib 60’), Omar Al Soma.

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