SYDNEY (AP) – War-torn Syria's hopes of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time have ended in a 2-1 extra-time loss to an Australia.
Tim Cahill again delivered for his country with two headed goals in a comeback win in an Asian playoff on Tuesday that ended moments after Omar al-Soma hit the post with a free kick that could have earned Syria a spot in the final stage of qualifying.
The Syrians were so close to securing a spot in Russia after salvaging a 1-1 draw in the first leg last week at their adopted home ground in Malaysia and taking a 1-0 lead in the return match in Sydney, but Cahill's goals in the 13th minute and in extra time secured Australia's place in a playoff next month against the fourth-place team from North and Central America.
Qualifying in CONCACAF concludes later Tuesday, with the possibility that the United States - in third spot ahead of its last game - could still finish in the playoff spot.
The Syrian squad arrived in Sydney as the underdog despite a remarkable campaign in the group stage, when it sealed third place in its group in Asia with a late equalizer in Tehran against the already-qualified Iran.
This time it went right to the wire again despite Syria being to 10 men in the first half of extra time and with the game still locked at 1-1.
The Australians dominated the start of last week's match in Malaysia and were expecting to do the same again, but Syria got a perfect start when Milligan was lost control of the ball in midfield and al-Soma finished off the counter-attack with precision in the 6th minute.
It was al-Soma's second goal against Australia in 5 days after he won and converted a penalty kick in the 85th minute of the first leg.
But Australia soon leveled when Matt Leckie delivered an perfect cross to find captain Cahill at the far post, and the veteran attacker made no mistake from close range.
Star playmaker Firas al-Khatib came off the bench on the hour mark as Syria coach Ayman al-Hakim looked to create the goal-scoring chance.
Al-Khatib made an immediate impact, almost finding al-Soma in a scoring position after a well-timed run through Australia's defense.
As the game became stretched, Tomi Rogic thought he had scored for Australia in the 70th - latching on the Leckie's inside pass - but Alma produced a stunning save low to his left to deny the midfielder. Off the resulting corner, Rogic then curled his shot inches wide of the post to continue to the hosts' frustration.
Syria created a late chance after al-Soma combined with al-Khatib but the substitute lost his footing.
Rogic again found himself in a good shooting position in the 89th minute but his left strike deflected narrowly wide as the match went to extra time.
Syria had a serious setback when Mahmoud Almawas was sent off in the 94th after earning a second yellow card for a crude tackle on Robbie Kruse.
It took another incisive run from Cahill, powering home his 50th international goal from Kruse's cross to finally give Australia the edge, but Syria almost produced an epic upset win in the last minute as al-Soma's powerful free kick hit the post with keeper Mat Ryan beaten.