Ange Postecoglou normally fronts the cameras with all the enthusiasm of a long-necked man walking to the gallows. On Tuesday night, however, after the Socceroos squeaked past Syria 2-1 to reach the final stage of World Cup qualifying – a play-off against, most likely, Honduras or Panama – he allowed himself the indulgence of a smile. Though only a wry one, mind. “We always find a difficult way to do things,” he said.
He’s not wrong. Since their journey to Russia 2018 began in June 2015 with a twitchy 2-1 away win against Kyrgyzstan, the Socceroos’ World Cup qualification journey has been as circuitous and wrenching as one of those budget flights to Europe in which the layovers are longer than many marriages and the flight paths resemble the etchings of a lunatic.
That trend continued with the Socceroos’ come-from-behind extra-time win in Sydney last night. As many a bitten nail will suggest this morning, it was a win that was as close to a crushing loss as the width of the right-hand upright that denied centre forward Omar Al Soma a late, late equaliser and 10-man Syria a second, and decisive, away goal.
Despite dominating possession (76%-24%) and shots (25-7) – as occurred in the first leg in Malaysia, and, to an absurd degree, in the final group qualifier against Thailand in Melbourne – it took an 118th-minute Tim Cahill header for the Socceroos to defeat a bullish Syrian team whose directness and pace on the counter often rattled Australia’s fine china and made them look skittish in defence. Indeed so effective was Syria’s approach I can’t have been the only observer wondering if it wouldn’t hurt the Socceroos to take a leaf out of their book every now and then and put their strangulation by triangulation game plan to one side in order to pin the ears back and go at ’em like Melbourne tram inspectors.
Postecoglou seemed to concede as much in his team selection, giving the veteran Cahill a rare start and sticking him up front to play off the shoulder of the last defender. Although Postecoglou explained after the match that his decision to play Cahill was an acknowledgement of Cahill’s experience and calmness under pressure, it was an old school approach.
Importantly it was one that played to Cahill’s strengths, gave the Syrian defenders something to worry about and opened up space for Australia’s playmakers, Aaron Mooy (who, surprisingly, started from the bench) and Tom Rogic. The result, of course, was that Cahill scored both of Australia’s goals with his head; the equaliser and, much later, as penalties loomed, and Australian cardiologists kept one eye on their pagers, the all-important winner. Cahill now has 50 goals for his country, a phenomenal return.
And yet, despite the fact that Cahill’s early goal was created with a fast break – after Rogic gave Matthew Leckie a ball to chase and the winger played a perfect first-time cross to Cahill’s golden bonce – the Socceroos reverted back to their slow-build up play thereafter. When the crosses did come in they were delivered either too late or, like the majority of Australia’s corners, too short or wide of the mark.
Finally, though, just when it was needed, just when it seemed Australia’s indirectness and wayward shooting would be their undoing, Australia were rewarded for their statistical dominance and perseverance, with Cahill’s head being found one more time, on this occasion by Robbie Kruse. As a nation celebrated it may also have entertained the thought that Australia’s continued reliance on a 37-year-old striker explains, in part, why this World Cup campaign has been such a slog.
But who ever said qualifying for a World Cup was easy? Ask Argentina how easy it is, ask the Netherlands. These world footballing heavyweights are standing on the precipice of elimination. Yet the Socceroos’ World Cup dream remains intact. They are not the most talented squad we have had in recent times, they may even be trying to play a style of football they’re ill-equipped to play, but they’ve endured the travails of the past two years, the away trips to far flung reaches of the globe. And here they are still, enjoying the opportunity to wonder what the weather is like in Central America at this time of year.
It’s been a wobbly, imperfect campaign, but it’s not over yet.
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