The Socceroos have secured progression to the Asian Cup last 16, defeating a desperate Syria 3-2 in Al Ain on Tuesday night.
Australia looked impressive but they did not have it all their own way, requiring a last-ditch effort from Tom Rogic to ensure all three points were taken by those in Green and Gold.
Syria looked a reborn team to the one that picked up just one point of a possible six prior to this match, starting with intent and testing the Socceroos in key areas of the pitch early.
They pushed and even had the ball in the back of the net, only to be denied by the linesman’s flag. Omar Al Soma was looking dangerous up front but was unable to beat Maty Ryan.
Jamie Maclaren had a pair of golden opportunities himself but could not convert. He sent a 22nd-minute header wide when it seemed harder to miss and 15 minutes later, he was thwarted not once, but twice by Ibrahim Alma.
Chances were not a scarcity for either side and eventually Awer Mabil etched his name onto the scoresheet, curling home an effort from just beyond the penalty area to give Australia a 1-0 lead.
But as soon as the advantage arrived, it evaporated almost immediately with Syria – in desperate need of all three points and nothing less – pushing directly up the other end to equalise through Omar Khribin.
But Australia reasserted themselves after the break and found their way back into the lead, and with it, a comfortable position. Chris Ikonomidis just managed to bundle the ball over the line, capitalising on a brilliant Tom Rogic ball.
The Socceroos – and in particular captain Mark Milligan, dropped deeper into the centre of defence – sweated over what is best described as a near miss. Milligan controlled a wayward touch with his arm in the penalty area but the referee waved appeals away.
But Syria lucked out when the Mexican whistleblower pointed to the spot with 10 minutes to play, and replays showed the decision to be rather fortunate. Still, Al Soma dispatched the penalty and afforded Syria some momentum.
Trips over own player. pic.twitter.com/GA9YSlRoyO
— Adam Peacock (@adampeacock3) January 15, 2019
In the end though Rogic ensured the decision did not affect the Socceroos’ progression, thumping in a strike in the 93rd minute to secure a 3-2 win.
Socceroos find their grove in attack
Three goals against Palestine suggested Graham Arnold’s men were back on the right track after a shock 1-0 loss to Jordan on matchday one, but the relative obscurity of the opponent made its worth a difficult assessment.
A higher-quality opponent in Syria offered a more intense microscope and the Socceroos were able to produce some free-flowing, classy moves and a deserved three goals came with it against a team that looked to fatigue late.
That was largely thanks to Chris Ikonomidis and Tom Rogic, who who both enjoyed fruitful evenings and netted goals of their own. Rogic in particular was arguably man of the match and produced quality on the ball synonymous with his club life at Celtic.
Ikonomidis continued on an upward curve after his inclusion against Palestine last time out, scoring Australia’s second shortly after half time. All up, the Perth Glory man now has one goal and three assists for the campaign.
It is one thing to select players that are in form either in the A-League or abroad, but it is another to bring that to the international stage. The winger is doing exactly that and brings a sense of directness that was lacking prior to his selection.
Unfortunately for the maligned Robbie Kruse, Ikonomidis’ run of form looks as though it will keep him out of Arnold’s first team plans, for the time-being at least.
One worry though will be the failure to convert more chances, of which many were clearcut. In the end, the Socceroos totalled eight shots on target, and both front men Apo Giannou and Maclaren could have had goals to their name.
The Milligan vs Jurman debate
The biggest dilemma confronting Arnold and his staff before the game was how to fill the void left by defender Trent Sainsbury, who was absent through suspension after accumulating two yellow cards.
The Socceroos’ depth was backed in and two options were identified: drop Milligan back to centre-half or promote Matt Jurman from the bench.
In the end, Arnold opted to deploy his skipper at centre-back. While this was by no means a disaster, Australia, at the best of times, seemed to lack composure and seniority in the No.6 role, which was occupied by Massimo Luongo.
Syria enjoyed plenty of productive, nervy spells, and in those times, the Socceroos looked short of an authoritative figure will to stamp out the play. Either way, more screws must be tightened at the back before a foray into the Round of 16.
The equation from here
Six points and second place is secured, meaning the Socceroos will face the Group B runners-up. Jordan topped the group with seven points and Palestine secured third with two points.
That means the Green and Gold will either draw Uzbekistan or Japan, who face each other in that group’s final match.