Australia Asia’s best chance of World Cup success

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre argues that despite the end of Syria fairytale run, Australia’s progression at the expense of the Syrians increases Asia’s chances of success in Russia.

Setting aside the partisan stance there will be disappointment for many that the dream of a maiden Syrian World Cup appearance came to a dramatic end in Sydney on Tuesday evening even though from a broader Asian perspective Australia’s progression through to the final stage of qualification represents a far better chance for the continent to taste success in Russia.

It certainly represents an approach that’s far more positive and vibrant and whilst not without flaws the aggressive, up-tempo, style of an Australian side that’s playing above the limitations of its squad makes this team one of the best chances that the AFC has of seeing a nation through to the second round at the World Cup – if, of course, they see off their yet-to-be-determined CONCACAF foe to qualify next month.

As dogged and persistent as the Syrians were, not just on the evening but throughout the entire campaign they were a team that was second best in the majority of their matches, one that consistently deployed a deep defensive line and looked to strike on the counter with the few chances that came their way.

In this clash alone Australia had an astonishing 73% of possession and reeled off no fewer than 25 shots to the seven of their opponents, and as wasteful as the Socceroos were they were clearly the better side across the full 180 minutes. Syria offering very little outside of the early goal and a dramatic 120th minute free kick from Omar Al Somah that struck the base of the post.

It said a lot about that conservative Syrian approach that more than a third of the goals they scored across the final stages of qualifying – remarkably – came after the 85th minute and whilst that refusal to give up is an admirable quality fairytales are quite dull if they’re constructed with only a few streaks of colour.

In truth, neither nation seemingly has any hope of actually winning the tournament, but for the ongoing battle about allocations of slots for future World Cups it’s imperative that at least two or three AFC nations progress from the group stage and there’s no doubt that Australia represent a far better chance of doing so than Syria.

The contrast between the styles can be summed up by the post-match interview from a clearly exhausted Mark Milligan, who declared the Socceroos approach ‘a little bit aggressive’ before pausing for breath and adding, ‘well we’re always aggressive.’

In a world driven by results rather than style this is an approach that ought to be lauded, as very few of Asia’s leading nations are even attempting to play positively no matter the opponent or the occasion. Whilst not with anywhere near the same technical finesse as many others in Asia – Syria included – this Australian side refuses to be bowed even as they relied on a pair of goals from 37-year Tim Cahill to secure the win.

As much as this was a victory for Cahill and the playing group it was even more so for Ange Postecoglou: a coach that’s had critics nipping at his neck for the better part of a decade and a half in charge of various national teams.

Here he not only stood stoic in his belief and tactical approach in the face of fierce criticism but even upped the attacking thrust by starting with a brazen 3-1-5-1 lineup that makes some of the all-out attacking work of the likes of Bielsa and Guardiola seem like a conservative game plan.

Postecoglou has silenced his critics – for now.

That approach cost Australia early as the only deeper stationed midfielder, Milligan, gave away possession with Tamer Haj Mohamed pouncing, surging towards goal and releasing Omar Al Somah who flashed his shot past Mat Ryan in just the sixth minute.

When left wingback Brad Smith was forced off through injury shortly after it looked as though things were not going to go Australia’s way although the silver lining in that injury was that it allowed Aaron Mooy – a surprise omission from the starting lineup – to enter the fray with Robbie Kruse switching to a wider role and almost immediately the hosts responded with Mathew Leckie delivering a delightful cross that was met by the head of Cahill.

Thereafter it was basically one-way traffic for the remainder of the half and much of the second as the Socceroos launched wave after wave of attack with Cahill and notably substitute Nikita Rukavytsya seeing several efforts either cleared off the line or smartly saved by the outstanding Syrian custodian Ibrahim Alma who was close to the best player from either nation across the two matches.

After a bizarre situation where the referee, Ravshan Irmatov, was forced off with injury in the period between the end of regulation time and the start of extra time his replacement, Ilgiz Tantashev, then sent off Mahmoud Al Mawas in the 94th minute before Cahill grabbed his 50th international goal in the 109th minute to seal Australia’s progression.

Yes, Syria were missing several key players. Yes, it was the finest of margins from the late free-kick that prevented them from progressing, and yes, it’s an outstanding achievement by a nation under extreme domestic circumstances and having played every match away from home to have come this far, but – and as harsh as it sounds given the Syrian situation – this was a deserved victory for Australia and one which sees a far better hope of an Asian nation having success in Russia.

It’s worth remembering that even with these two playoff games tagged onto the tally, the Socceroos only lost once across the entire final two stages of qualification and although you need luck to at points, one loss from 12 matches means you’re doing something right.

That’s less than Japan, Saudi Arabia and Korea Republic all of whom qualified automatically and whilst there’s still another final hurdle to overcome before they reach Russia it’s an achievement that deserves to be recognised.

Without question there’s still resentment towards Australia’s place in Asia (yet equally there’s a degree of ignorance from many around the work that the FFA is quietly doing behind the scenes – perhaps they should be more vocal about it) but regardless of the stance of other nations the continent has the best chance of having a fifth qualifier for Russia in the shape of the Socceroos who I maintain are – along with Iran – the best chance of Asian success next year.