Mat Ryan knows what to expect from Syria. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Mat Ryan knows what to expect from Syria. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Ryan warns of ‘relentless’ Syria

Mat Ryan might never again be more grateful for a couple of inches of paint.

Had Omar Al-Somah's free-kick snuck inside the base of the upright instead of ricocheting off its outer edge that night in October 2017, it would have spelled an inglorious end to the Socceroos' campaign to qualify for a fourth successive World Cup.

Until that moment, in the dying seconds of extra-time at ANZ Stadium, Australia had done just enough to secure passage to a final playoff against Honduras.

Tim Cahill defied age and logic in a 120-minute shift and scored a brace - his final international goals - to lead 2-1 and 3-2 on aggregate in the two-legged tie.

 

Memories of that game should be warning enough for the Socceroos. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Memories of that game should be warning enough for the Socceroos. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

 

Another Syria goal would have sent the Socceroos packing and themselves one step closer to a scarcely believable maiden World Cup.

So when Al-Somah, the man who'd netted his country's early opener, stepped up for a free-kick some 30 metres out, the 42,000 in attendance collectively held their breath.

What they didn't know was that an over-packed wall had left Australia's goalkeeper blind to his challenge.

 

It took Tim Cahill to do the business again. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
It took Tim Cahill to do the business again. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

 

"I was a little bit frustrated by the fact that, if I remember correctly, Tomi Juric came back into the wall but in our sheets before the game and what we had practised he wasn't meant to be there," Ryan recalled.

"We ended up having one too many in the wall than what I wanted, and therefore my sight of the ball was blocked.

"I remember trying to yell in that moment trying to get one out of the wall so my position in the goal was perfectly right.

"But it was getting close to taking the free-kick and they couldn't hear me with all the commotion, so I saw the ball later than what I wanted to.

"I still reacted and did my best to make the save. I know I was close to it. If it was going on target I don't know if I had it covered.

"They were really relentless in their performance that day … that game went right down to the wire."

 

How the teams will likely line-up for the crunch clash.
How the teams will likely line-up for the crunch clash.

 

For Mark Milligan, it's a memory still fraught with angst - even if he didn't realise what was on the line at the time.

"We didn't know if that went in, that was it," Milligan said.

"It seems a lot closer, once we found out. I've been trying to forget that for a while."

He'll have no choice but to re-live it when they meet again in another high-stakes encounter that could come down to similarly small margins.

The Socceroos need at least a draw tonight in Al Ain to automatically advance to the Asian Cup's knockout stages. Syria must take all three points.

If there's one thing Milligan has learnt it's that this Syria team - a big chunk of their playoff squad is at the tournament - do not lack intensity.

 

 

But he remembered Australia playing well in the first leg in neutral Malaysia, in draining humidity and on a slow surface made of local cow grass that felt so bushy underfoot it reminded the skipper of "little palm trees".

"I thought we actually put in a better performance than we did at home," Milligan said.

"We were a little bit unlucky with the very dodgy penalty late in the game against Lecks, and then they had everything to play for in the second leg.

"While we controlled the match in most parts, it was definitely far from convincing … it's another high-pressure match situation.

"In a one-off game you can't leave anything in the tank, you have to go out and show all your cards in that match."

 

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