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Aussies deny Syrians in Asia playoff

The Associated Press

Australia’s Tomi Juric and Milos Degenek (2) celebrate their win over Syria in Sydney on Tuesday.

The Associated Press SYDNEY (AP) — Omar al-Soma’s free kick crashed into the post with moments to go, ending war-torn Syria’s World Cup hopes and allowing Tim Cahill’s Australians to squeeze into the final playoff for a spot in Russia.

The 37-year-old Cahill delivered again for Australia with both goals in a dramatic 2-1 extra-time win over Syria on Tuesday that clinched the Asian playoff series 3-2 on aggregate.

The Australians will next play a home-and-away series in November against Honduras, which finished in fourth place in the CONCACAF qualifying group. The winner of that series qualifies for Russia.

Syria’s improbable run toward a first World Cup attracted global attention, which heightened after it salvaged a 1-1 draw in the first leg last week at its adopted home ground in Malaysia.

Syria’s chances grew dramatically after taking a 1-0 lead in the return match on al-Soma’s goal in the sixth minute, but Cahill’s powerful headers in the 13th minute and in extra time secured Australia’s place in a playoff next month.

“I don’t know why we have to make it so hard — it shouldn’t be that difficult for us,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said. “We left it late and we had to work awfully hard, but I think we deserved to get through. The players showed tremendous character.”

Postecoglou singled out Cahill, who has been a star of Australia’s World Cup campaigns since scoring against Japan in Germany in 2006, for his composed performance.

“Timmy is Timmy, that’s why he’s a great Australian sportsman,” Postecoglou said. “He’s got real belief in himself. He’s just a unique, extraordinary individual and he led from the front tonight.”

But for a matter of centimeters, it could have been Syria striker al-Soma getting all the accolades. After returning to the national team from a self-imposed five-year absence amid the war in his country, al-Soma played a vital role in Syria’s surge to third spot in the third round of Asian qualifying — including the late equalizer against Iran in the last game which set up the playoff series against Australia.

The Olympic Stadium crowd of 42,136 was silent when al-Soma stepped up in the last minute of extra time with a chance to make it 2-2 — a result that would have allowed Syria to advance to the next stage on away goals — but his free kick missed by the narrowest of margins with keeper Mat Ryan beaten.

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