Australia has progressed to the Asian Cup’s Round of 16 – but only just – after defeating Syria 3-2 in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Goals to Awer Mabil and Omar Khrbin had the game finely balanced at 1-1 heading into half-time, before controversial goals to Chris Ikonomidis and Omar Al Soma in the second 45 set the stage for a nervy final 10 minutes.
Just when it appeared Australia may be overrun late, though, Tom Rogic stepped up and hammered home a 93rd-minute winner to save the Socceroos.
What an absolutely STUNNING goal from Awer Mabil! 🔥 GoSocceroos
— Socceroos (@Socceroos) January 15, 2019
Socceroos head coach Graham Arnold was again forced to shuffle his starting XI for the contest. With Trent Sainsbury suspended, captain Mark Milligan moved from midfield to centre back, with Massimo Luongo moving into his place in the midfield.
Syria’s upheaval prior to the game came not on the pitch, but in the dugout: Sacked head coach Bernd Stange was replaced by Fajr Ibrahim.
At first, the transition appeared to be working perfectly, the Syrians starting the contest brightly, growing in confidence with every passing minute of the first half as they became increasingly adventurous in their moves forward while making the Socceroos appear uncomfortable by pressing hard whenever they took possession.
Capitalising on their control, the Syrians had the ball in the back of the net in the 30th minute when Al Soma nudged a free kick swung into the Australian penalty area home.
Fortuitously for Arnold’s side, though, Milligan had been obstructed by Mohammed Osman in the build-up, causing the goal to be disallowed.
Gifted a second chance – whether Milligan would have reached the ball had he not been obstructed was very unclear – Australia was able to create its first two clear chances via means other than crosses: with the second making the vital breakthrough.
Firstly, Rogic scythed a pass through the Syrian lines for Jamie Maclaren to have two chances in quick succession denied by Ibrahim Alma in the 36th.
Then, four minutes later, Mabil received a ball from Chris Ikonomidis outside the Syrian penalty area. The winger cut inside onto his left boot before launching a scintillating curling effort into the top corner of the goal, making it 1-0.
Disastrously for Arnold’s men, the lead lasted all of 60 seconds before the Syrians struck with an equaliser: Omar Khrbin firing his side level after pouncing on a ball loose in the Socceroos penalty area after Mathew Ryan had saved his initial header.
Disappointing in the first half, the Socceroos needed a moment of brilliance to kickstart their quest for three points and it arrived eight minutes into the second half in the form of Rogic.
The Celtic attacker laced an inch-perfect cross from the right into the path of Ikonomidis at the back post, with the Glory winger’s resulting shot sliding under Alma and crossing the goal line to make it 2-1 before being cleared.
GET IN. ⚽
— FOX Sports Football (@FOXFOOTBALL) January 15, 2019
One of the game’s major talking points – at least for the Syrians – then followed in the 61st minute.
Getting in the way of a cross into the penalty area by Hussein Al Jwayed, Milligan appeared to have the ball ricochet off his leg and on to his arm – seemingly a clear penalty.
Nevertheless, play was waved on by referee César Arturo Ramos despite howls of protest from the Syrians.
Yet, with 10 minutes remaining, it was then the turn of Australia to be furious with Ramos after the Mexican official handed the Syrians a highly dubious penalty after Al Soma went down in the area claiming contact from Milos Degenek.
Al Soma duly placed his spot kick to the left of Ryan to make it 2-2, setting up a heart-stopping final 10 minutes.
Thankfully for those watching on from Australia, Rogic – who put on a man of the match performance for Australia – thundered home an Iknonomidis cut-back from outside the box in the 93rd minute, confirming second place in Group B and a meeting with Group F’s second-place finisher in the Round of 16.
Tom rogic scoring for Australia in injury time today. pic.twitter.com/BAeLRo8Wiz
— Muiry (@MuiryCeltic) January 15, 2019
“They threw everything at us,” Mark Bosnich said on Fox Sports in the game’s aftermath.
“Gave it everything the possibly could.
“There’s a lot of improvement (for Australia) that needs to be done but phase one, getting though the group, is done.”