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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 February 2019

Agony for Syria as Tom Rogic winner sends Australia into Asian Cup last 16

Defending champions finish second in Group B, below Jordan, who were held to goalless draw by Palestine

Tom Rogic struck an injury-time winner as Australia beat Syria 3-2 to reach the Asian Cup last 16 in Al Ain on Tuesday.

The defending champions bounced back each time Syria equalised at Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium to take three points and finish second in Group B. Jordan, who were held to a goalless draw by Palestine in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, topped the group with seven points.

Syria, whose 2018 World Cup qualifying run was ended by the Socceroos, finished bottom of the pool after losing two matches and drawing one.

Injury-hit Australia, with only six outfield players on the bench, needed only a draw to go through and they got there, although there were twists along the way. But manager Graham Arnold insisted his young Australian side were getting better with every game, having won two matches on the bounce following their shock defeat to Jordan in the opener.

"It was a helter-skelter game at times," Arnold conceded. "On another night we could've scored more goals but it was a great learning process for our young players.

"Tonight we had four out - three injured plus [centre-back Trent] Sainsbury suspended. It’s just the grit and determination.”

There was hardly a dull moment in the game, as Syria - buoyed by the arrival of new manager Fajr Ebrahim - had the better of the opening exchanges.

Australia even struggled to deal with the intensity of the Syrians and, on the half-hour mark, the latter thought they had taken the lead when Mouaiad Al Ajaan’s free-kick from distance found its way past keeper Mat Ryan, only for referee Cesar Ramos to rule it out for a foul on Mark Milligan in the build-up.

Buoyed by the let-off, the champions upped the ante, and on 41 minutes, Awer Mabil put Australia ahead after the forward curled in a left-footer to the far corner of the net.

Australia were caught off guard two minutes later when Mouaiad Al Ajaan ran down the left flank to fire in a cross to Omar Khribin, who headed the ball from close range. His effort was blocked by Ryan, but the 2017 Asian Footballer of the Year scored on the rebound to send the partisan crowd into wild celebrations.

Australia were back in front nine minutes after the restart.

Rogic’s sweeping ball from the left slid past Hussein Al Jwayed to land at the feet of Chris Ikonomidis, who steered his effort over the line despite a despairing dive from Omro Al Midani. The Syrian defence thought Al Midani had kept the ball from crossing the line, but referee Cesar Ramos awarded the goal to the Socceroos.

Ikonomidis, who had set up Australia's opening goal, now had a goal to his own credit.

Substitute Giannou Apostolos then hit the post 15 minutes from time as the Socceroos sought to kill the game, and five minutes later Syria were level after referee Ramos pointed to the spot and Omar Al Soma converted.

But Rogic’s 93rd-minute goal - a superb strike that beat Ibrahim Alma to his left with a blistering effort from distance - sealed the Middle Eastern side's fate.

Arnold said he had been confident about victory on Tuesday night.

“Syria had to win this game, and we know when they started to attack the chances are that they also open up for us to score, and we had three or four more chances to add to our score after they levelled at 2-2," he said.

The 55-year-old paid tribute to the Syria's fans.

“They were a great spectacle,” he said. “They created the atmosphere for our younger players to learn from. These are the type of game that will test the nerves of our boys.”

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Ebrahim, Arnold's opposite number who replaced Bernd Stange after the German was dismissed earlier this week, chose to look on the bright side of Syria's campaign.

“We didn’t have much time to make the style and strategy, but I think we played much better game [on Tuesday] than the previous two [matches]," he said.

“The difference between us and the Australians was the physical fitness," he pointed out. "We were unable to keep the same level of play for the entire 90 minutes because of the [difference in] fitness levels between the two teams.

“We lost the game on individual mistakes but I’m not going to blame anyone, because tonight they gave everything they had, and fighting until the last whistle. We managed to produce a good effort because of a collective effort.”

Updated: January 15, 2019 10:58 PM

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