Socceroo's World Cup path to Russia just got tougher
AUSTRALIA has been condemned to the World Cup playoffs after Saudi Arabia defeated Japan 1-0 in Jeddah this morning.
And in what is a remarkable story for world sport, the Socceroos will take on Syria in the cutthroat Asian tie next month after the war-torn country scored a dramatic injury time equaliser against Iran to retake third spot in Group A with a 2-2 draw in Tehran.
After the Socceroos could only defeat Thailand 2-1 at AAMI Park last night, the Saudis knew that a win of any kind against the Japanese would see them through to their first World Cup since 2006.
It was a nervy night for the 62,000 fanatical Saudis at the King Abdullah Sports City and for the bleary-eyed Australians watching on from the other side of the globe, as the already qualified Samurai Blue did not roll over in Jeddah.
But ultimately a scorching strike by substitute Fahad Al-Muwallad in the 63rd minute was enough to send the Green Falcons through and consign the Socceroos to the long-route home.
Australia will play Syria on October 5 and October 10, with the order of the legs and the venues they will be played in yet to be confirmed.
What we do know is, though, that Syria's home game will be played on neutral territory as the war-torn country has not played a home international since December 2010.
Their games in the initial stage of qualifying were in Oman, but their games in this most recent stage of qualifying were held in Malaysia.
Whoever comes through the Asian playoff will then take on the fourth-placed North American team on November 6 and November 15, which at this stage could still be any of the USA, Panama or Honduras.
Australia and Saudi Arabia finished level on points after the 10-match qualification phase, a point behind Japan.
But the Saudis had a +7 goal difference as compared to Australia's +5, which was enough to send them through.
Given this morning's result, Ange Postecoglou's men now know that a three-goal win against Thailand would have been enough to send them through to Russia automatically - a margin that could have so easily been secured had the team not spurned, had blocked or hit the post with the majority of its 45 shots in Melbourne.
Japan made four changes to the side that played Australia in Saitama last week, but given that Shinji Okazaki and Keisuke Honda were among the inclusions it's not as if this was a B-grade side deployed by Vahid Halilhodzic.
And the Samurai Blue made good on their promise to have a crack in Jeddah despite having booked their World Cup spot with the 2-0 win over Australia.
Through Gen Shoji and Hotaru Yamaguchi the visitors had the better of the chances in a cagey first half.
And when a Hiroki Sakai toe-poke from a corner became the second Japanese shot to be cleared off the line soon after halftime it was clear Japan was continuing to hold sway.
But then the momentum turned.
Al-Mulwallad came on for Mohammaed Al-Sahlawi straight after halftime and became a menace straight away, forcing Eiji Kawashima into a miraculous close-range save with his leg in the 55th minute.
But the Japan No. 1 could not deny Al-Mulwallad eight minutes later when he smashed home his ninth international goal after being played through by Nawaf Al-Abid.
Spurred on by the goal and the crowd, it was the hosts who had the better of the rest of the game and the final whistle sparked wild celebrations both on the field and in the stands.
This is the fifth time Saudi Arabia has made a World Cup.
Earlier, after a dramatic night of simultaneous kick-offs in Group A, Uzbekistan spurned the opportunity to qualify directly after being held to a 0-0 draw by South Korea in Tashkent.
Ultimately that result was enough to see the South Koreans through to Russia along with the already qualified Iran.
But it looked like the Uzbeks would take the consolation playoff berth until Omar Al Somah scored in the 93rd minute to ensure the status quo on the group table from the start of the night would remain.
Al Somah's is a great story as well considering he only recently returned to the Syrian set-up after a five-year absence.
Syria took the lead through Tamer Haj Mohamad in the 13th minute, before a Sadar Azmoun brace either side of halftime appeared to give Iran the win before the late drama.
In the group's other game, China defeated Qatar 2-1 in Doha, but the other results denied it the opportunity to sneak into third.
Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou will address the media at 10am on Wednesday morning.
AFC fifth-place playoff
AUSTRALIA v SYRIA
October 5 and October 10
* venues, times and who hosts which tie first is TBC
FIFTH-PLACE AFC TEAM v FOURTH-PLACE CONCACAF TEAM
November 6 and November 15
* CONCACAF team hosts first leg
Uzbekistan 0 drew with South Korea 0, Tashkent
Iran 2 (Azmoun 45', 64') drew with Syria 2 (Mohamad 13', Al Somah 90+3'), Tehran
China 2 (Xiao 74', Wu 83') def Qatar 1 (Afif 47'), Doha