On Thursday night against Syria, the Caltex Socceroos play the first of what they hope will be four matches to clinch World Cup qualification.
And it all begins in the neutral venue of the Hang Jebat Stadium in Melaka, Malaysia where Ange Postecoglou’s men go searching for a buffer to bring home to Sydney for the second leg of this Asian playoff.
THE STORY SO FAR
Despite losing just one of their ten games, Australia finished third in their Asian World Cup qualifying group behind Japan and Saudi Arabia who automatically qualified for Russia 2018.
Four drawn matches proved costly with the Caltex Socceroos finishing level on points with the second-placed Saudis, but with a slightly inferior goal difference.
Syria surprised everyone by finishing third in the other Asian group, scoring an injury-time equaliser against group winners Iran to pip Uzbekistan on goal difference.
THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
- The Caltex Socceroos have never played Syria before.
- The tie will be decided over two legs with the return match in Sydney the following Tuesday night.
- The winner will progress to an intercontinental playoff (again home and away) against the fourth-placed side in the CONCACAF region.
- With two matches remaining in that qualifying group, the USA are currently fourth, with Panama and Honduras the other possible opponents.
AUSTRALIAN SQUAD NEWS
- Eighteen of the players originally named in the squad for Australia's recent matches against Japan and Thailand have retained their spots.
- There are recalls for defenders Aziz Behich, Craig Goodwin and Josh Risdon, while Israel-based attacker Nikita Rukavytsya returns to the international fold after a four-year absence.
- The only uncapped outfielder in the squad is former Sydney FC central defender Matt Jurman, now playing for Suwon Bluewings in Korea.
- However, captain Mile Jedinak is still unavailable through injury.
CURRENT WORLD RANKINGS
- Australia: 50
- Syria: 75
Most Australian football fans didn't expect the Caltex Socceroos to be going down this path to reach Russia.
But now they're here, making a statement in Malaysia is crucial.
The last thing Ange Postecoglou will want is to be chasing a result in Sydney on Tuesday.
He'd far prefer the tie to be in the bag when the team arrives back home.
For that to happen, Australia have to get the job done on neutral soil on Thursday night.
Their big game experience should come to the fore, allowing them to dominate against a Syrian side which is in uncharted territory (and who only scored 9 goals compared to Australia's 16 in group qualification).
But don't underestimate the plucky newcomers to this level of football, especially given what they've achieved so far.
Omar Al Somah is one of the most dangerous strikers in Asia at the moment, with his exploits in the ACL for Al-Ahli marking him out as a clear danger for the Australian back three. He scored the injury-time goal that earned Syria a 2-2 draw in Iran in the final game of Group A, too.
But with a number of key players in strong form at club level, the Aussies will rightly feel confident of laying a successful platform in this first leg.
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