Australia start the tie as favourites but ahead of Thursday's first leg, John McAuley explains why Syria are more than capable of matching their opponents.
Syria's three-man attack can cause Australia plenty of problems in 2018 World Cup play-off
By now you’ve probably heard it. Or at least you should have.
Omar Al Somah scored and commentator Talal Bosanli, calling the game on television, broke down in tears. The Syrian had “lost it”, he conceded, as his voice creaked and the emotion overwhelmed. But his team had done anything but.
Syria drew with Iran in Tehran. They scored twice against Group A’s winners, the second in injury time, the first goals the hosts had conceded in the third and final stage of qualification. Al Somah had snatched a 2-2 draw, earning a priceless point and sealing third place in Group A in the pool's final fixture. Third place and a continental play-off this week against Australia, the most recent winners of the Asian Cup.
Syria’s bid for a first World Cup appearance, improbable anyway but deemed impossible when set against the backdrop of the country’s civil war, was extended to another two matches at least. To four matches from Russia next summer.
And so to Australia, three-time World Cup participants, the reigning continental champions. To a play-off to extend to another, final play-off. The “home” leg on Thursday, in Malaysia, then the return fixture in Sydney five days later.
Undoubtedly, the Australians are favourites. For most, the Syrians are the popular choice. Irrespective of the groundswell of support, or whether the Syrian football story is quite the fairytale some suggest, Ayman Hakeem’s side possess genuine quality. They can hurt Australia.
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Their three-pronged forward line, especially. At its tip, Al Somah is one of the region’s finest strikers. He has featured for Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli since 2014, scoring 78 goals in 73 league matches. He is both a predator and a perfect foil for his fellow attackers.
Alongside him, Omar Khribin is a player of considerable talent, too. Formerly of the UAE’s Al Dhafra, he has excelled with Al Hilal, initially on loan for the second half of last season, and then since the move was made permanent this summer.
Prior to the transfer, Al Ain had expressed an interest. Shabab Al Ahli Dubai, Al Nasr and Al Wahda, also. But Khribin chose Hilal. Last week, his hat-trick in Abu Dhabi, in the first leg of the Asian Champions League semi-final against Iran’s Persepolis, carried his club to the verge of another showpiece appearance. He now has 21 goals in 27 appearances for Hilal.
Meanwhile, in captain Firas Al Khatib, Syria have experience and expertise. His return to the national team in March caused controversy, given he had stepped down in 2012, declaring that he would not represent his country while the bombing of civilians persisted. Yet he is back in the fold. His reasoning remains vague.
"Better for me, better for my country, better for my family, better for everybody if I not talk about that," said Al Khatib, 34.
Purely in sporting terms, as unquestionably difficult that is to separate from the political situation in Syria, it is better for his country. With Al Khatib returning, and Al Somah as well - the game in Iran was only his seventh at international level – the team concluded the last round of qualification with a draw against China, victory against Qatar and the point in Tehran.
In three matches, Syria scored seven goals. In their previous seven, they found the net twice. Evidently, they have gotten stronger.
Throughout, their form in Malaysia has been sturdy. There, Syria held South Korea and Iran, the group’s lead sides, to goalless draws. Another against Australia on Thursday would offer legitimate hope of progression in Sydney.
The Hang Jebat Stadium, close to the city of Melaka, with its uneven pitch and largely empty stands, could provide a relatively unremarkable setting to add another layer to an already remarkable journey. Even with their triple threat in attack, Syria should be defensive and dogged.
Australia should be superior, especially across two legs, but they must also be wise to the size of the task. Considered to be fighting for something altogether greater, Syria cannot be underestimated.