January 18 – Australia have booked their place in the last 16 of the Asian Cup with a match to spare after Jackson Irvine came to the rescue to overcome a dogged Syria 1-0.
Short on ideas and panache, the Australians once again produced a somewhat subdued victory, labouring past the determined Syrians, who offered too little in the final third to find an equaliser late on.
Socceroos boss Graham Arnold introduced Jordy Bos, who scored coming off the bench against India, Cameron Burgess and Aiden O’Neill to his starting lineup while Syria’s Hector Cuper kept faith in the team that adhered to meticulous organisation to gain a deserved point from their opening match against Uzbekistan.
Almost out of character, the Syrians, containing Australia, got off to the best start when, with their first attack of the match in the 5th minute, striker Pablo Sabbag hit the post after moving the ball on to his left and driving low to surprise Matt Ryan.
The Socceroos then took command of the match, with Syria happy to sit back, defending with two banks of four. It was a recipe that brought Cuper’s team success against the Uzbeks and they were confident of repeating the plan against one of the tournament favourites.
It seemed to work. Australia had all the possession – at times over 75%, but didn’t develop any attacking rhythm or chances, owing in part to their slow pace.
Andrew O’Neill received a 27th-minute booking for waving his arm in the face of Sabbag and Jackson Irvine had half a chance at the far post when he failed to connect with Gethin Jones’s header following a set piece. Syria finished the half on top, and could have been a goal up if Slovakia-based Ammar Ramadan hadn’t dragged his shot into the side of the net in the 39th minute.
Neither side had a shot on target before the break, which suited Syria just fine. A limited side, they frustrated Australia, preventing the Socceroos from building any pressure.
Could the Australians, who had also been insipid for 45 minutes against India, be more imposing in the second stanza and come good?
If Arnold demanded more urgency and a spark from his players in the dressing room, it was hard to notice on the pitch as the Socceroos failed to gain any momentum. The manager reacted with a triple substitution, throwing on Riley McGree, Sam Silvera and Keana Baccus in the 56th minute.
But it was midfielder Irvine who found the breakthrough two minutes later with the first shot of the match on target and his second goal of the tournament, getting a toe to the loose ball in the box. It was a soft goal to concede for the determined Syrians, who for the first time in the tournament were trailing.
But fortune almost smiled on the Syrian when Ryan fumbled Al Ajaan’s half-volley before scrambling backwards to clear the ball off the line.
No longer hanging on to a 0-0, Syria attacked more but Australia proved that they could also keep a team at arm’s length. In the final minutes of the matches, Australia retained possession and Sam Silvera nearly doubled the lead, flashing his shot not far wide.
Australia move top of the group with six points and can begin planning for the knockout stages. Their final group match is against Uzbekistan which will be the perfect warmup match for the business end of the tournament. Syria’s hopes of reaching the second round for the first time hang in the balance, but they will be favourites to beat India in their final group game.
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