THANK heavens for Tim Cahill. Still.
The Socceroos talisman headed in goals 49 and 50 to send Australia into a another play off round ahead of Russia 2018. If that play off — against Panama, Honduras or the US — is anywhere near as gut wrenching as this, heaven help us all.
In the end Syria were left crushed and angry - not that Ange Postecoglou had any sympathy after being upset with the penalty decision that cost his team victory in the opening match.
Syria’s coach Ayman Al Hakim was furious after a double yellow card left them down to 10 men five minutes into extra time.
He seethed right through the rest of the match, the anger intensifying when Cahill rose to score the winner.
At the end Al Hakim remonstrated with Ange Postecoglou, but the Australian was anything but sympathetic, waving away his complaints.
“He was complaining about the referee which I thought was a bit rich coming after the first game,” he said.
Here are the big moments in an enthralling second leg win by the Socceroos.
If anyone wanted the night to go to script with a routine outing for the Socceroos, it went entirely opposite within 10 minutes.
Mark Milligan, the lone ranger in the middle of the park, was robbed under pressure and Syria just swooped in a flash.
In shades of Steven Gerrard for Liverpool against Chelsea, the heartbeat of the side endured a moment that he will want to forget and does not deserve.
Tamer Hag Mohamad pinched the ball, surged downfield and Australia’s back three melted meekly as danger man Omar Alsoma was slipped in behind, lured Mat Ryan out and then slotted the shot high into the net.
Seven minutes in, it was a piercing blow. The away goal from Malacca, gone; the midfield without Aaron Mooy immediately exposed, and the absolute worst start possible.
Two of Postecoglou’s most divisive selections went pear-shaped by the 11th minute.
Underdone Brad Smith picked up a niggle and hobbled off, and with the side 1-0 down, the coach opted to push Robbie Kruse back instead of bringing on Aziz Behich, allowing him to immediately introduce Aaron Mooy to bolster the middle of the park. He was so eager to come on, he surged onto the park before the Fourth Official had even raised his sign.
It pushed Troisi further forward to play in the pocket of space behind Cahill.
“The irresponsibility of not picking him was laid bare. He did more in his first 10 minutes (after he came on) than anyone had done in that time (up until) there ... and was combining well with Rogic ... and Troisi.”
Mooy’s energetic introduction and the sense of urgency of the situation sparked the perfect retort from the hosts — and it came thanks to Hertha Berlin No. 7 Leckie surging down the flank to the byline. Unleashed by Rogic, Leckie then whipped the most perfect ball and when that happens, and Tim Cahill is in the box, there’s usually only one result.
At 37 years of age, he showed his predatory and big game instincts are still the best in the country, with the most relieving goal imaginable to restore parity.
19 minutes down, James Troisi picked the ball up in space down the left and danced forward before forcing a fine save down low to Ibrahim Alma’s right at the near post, but the silkiest chance came in the 28th minute, when patient, probing passing went up a gear thanks to Mooy, Kruse and Troisi down the left, before Syria cleared with a huge sigh of relief as the skipper Almedani blocked Cahill’s finish.
When you see play like that you wonder, firstly, how Mooy was excluded, and secondly, why the side hasn’t scored more through the campaign.
Leckie then tested Alma on the half-hour — again showing how dangerous he can be when advancing downfield. He cut inside in gorgeous fashion, akin to a goal scored earlier this year for Hertha, but was well thwarted by Alma, readjusting to get down to a cheeky shot across the turf.
Rogic then spun free and whacked a left foot drive just wide of the post — but as promising as these surges were, they were mounting up. And at 1-1, that still meant extra-time, with shades of the Thailand frustrating hovering in the background.
An hour had passed in the second-half, and still, the status was extra-time beckoning.
Mooy had the press box pre-empting its headlines when he lined up a set piece — which was on target but comfortable for Alma.
Kruse, Troisi and Mooy all tried upping the rate of 11 first-half crosses into Cahill in the box, but all didn’t clear the Syrian defence, before Rogic tried his luck from distance again.
Then, just before the hour, the Syrians enjoyed their best spell since the goal, and in front of their fans. It culminated with Mardkian testing Ryan, but fortunately, the shot was straight at him.
On the hour, Leckie saw a header flash wide, as Syria turned to their talisman Firas Al Khatib, to rapturous applause from the away fans.
Meanwhile, Leckie and Milligan had both picked up yellows that would rule them out of the first leg of a CONCACAF playoff if Australia progressed.
Australia’s three best players combined with 20 minutes to go as Mooy unleashed Leckie down the right, before Rogic’s finish was somehow tipped wide by the impressive Alma.
Seconds later, the Celtic man was agonisingly close again, curling a strike every Aussie fan was willing into the top corner.
The 42,136 fans on show — besides a healthy contingent of Syrian supporters — were really sweating it as Nikita Rukavytsta came on for Troisi as the final flurry began.
Leckie got into the box, Rukavytsya looped a cross or two into the mix but the best chance of them all actually never eventuated: Al Khatib was about to surge into the box unmarked with five minutes to play and inexplicably slipped after a one-two.
The yellow card count mounted as the Syria stretcher got a workout, and tensions raised, and the entire crowd — press gallery included — just bowed in disbelief as Rogic, teed up awkwardly by Rukavystya, saw another effort scramble through a crowded box.
Sainsbury, usually one of Australia’s calmest heads, then passed with no pressure straight into touch.
Then up stepped Tim Cahill again. Via - finally - a Robbie Kruse delivery on the money.
With a minute left Syria had a freekick, driven stunningly against Australia’s post.
“You just knew he’d do it for us,” said former teammate John Aloisi, whose 2005 penalty put Australia through to the 2006 World Cup.
“The way I play I know the defenders are going to be scared of me,” he said. “I’ll run to the end for these players and this coach.”