Veteran Cahill the saviour for Socceroos again
COMETH the hour, cometh the man.
Out of season and two months shy of his 38th birthday, Tim Cahill defied age and logic to score two crucial goals to keep Australia's 2018 World Cup dream alive.
A home horror show was threatening to unfold when Syria opened the scoring on six minutes, but the Socceroos rallied to win 2-1 and secure a 3-2 aggregate win to advance to the final phase of the World Cup playoffs.
There's no shame in having Cahill rescue you, he's done it for a succession of Socceroos coaches from Guus Hiddink to Pim Verbeek and Holger Osieck.
There have been many vital goals for Cahill among the 50 - he reached that mark with his second goal in his 103rd cap - but these two will be up there, as the Socceroos continued their impressive extra-time record at ANZ Stadium following on from Uruguay (2005) and South Korea (2015).
The Socceroos will now face the fourth-place Concacaf team, most likely Panama, next month for a spot at Russia 2018. Mark Milligan and Mathew Leckie are suspended for the first leg.
Syrian goalscorer almost caused Socceroos heartbreak in the 121st minute. If his free-kick crashed into the other side of the upright, Australia would have been eliminated on away goals.
Moments earlier Milos Degenek's crucial late tackle to prevented Al Somah from breaking through.
The game was played at such a frenetic pace, even referee Ravshan Irmatov had to be subbed on full-time, replaced by fellow Uzbek Tantashev Ilgiz.
James Troisi had the game's first chance on four minutes but Australia's offensive line-up was exposed just two minutes later, with Tamer Mohamad releasing deadly Al Somah.
He composed himself with a touch and waited for Mat Ryan to commit before expertly striking a rising shot into the roof of the net.
Brad Smith, an inclusion for Aziz Behich, soon pulled up with a hip flexor and Aaron Mooy's shock omission soon had an uncanny resemblance to Hiddink's Harry Kewell axing of 2005, as he came on early and turned the tide.
The Socceroos promptly retaliated via an impressive passage, as Rogic broke and released Leckie with a weighted pass down the right.
Leckie whipped in a delightful cross that virtually sat on Cahill's head. The veteran effortlessly cushioned the ball behind the keeper and into the net.
Thereafter it transpired into a frenetic, end-to-end game, with the slippery conditions adding another layer of unpredictability.
Cahill, Leckie and Rogic all manufactured chances but Ibrahim Alma couldn't be beaten. Syria carved openings too, but Ryan stood tall and high, snuffing out chances with his sweeper-keeper role.
Playing for a war-torn nation and backed by a vocal fan base among the 42,136 crowd, Syria was brutally physicality and made the Socceroos earn everything - headlined by winger Mahmoud Al Mawas's 79th minute triple defensive effort on Mooy that earnt him a caution.
Playing on edge, Al Mawas earnt his second booking four minutes into extra-time after a studs up challenge on Robbie Kruse.
Rogic looked like he'd settle it before extra-time after a cutback from substitute Nikita Rukavytsya, but his shot from inside the box was deflected just wide of the post.
That was the cue for extra-time, and inevitable drama.
Rukavystya almost sealed it in the 105th minute, but his right-foot volley from Mooy's cross was tipped over by Alma.
With penalties beckoning and fatigue setting in, he read the situation impeccably, peeling off Syrian captain Zaher Almedani as Mooy released Kruse, giving Cahill the momentum to meet the well-flighted cross and out jump his fellow captain and head past Alma, who had been outstanding all night.
"I'm just happy the boss gave me the opportunity," the veteran said after the game.
"Any player with conviction will score. I'm not going to waste an opportunity. I feel great.
"When I play I know the defender's going to be scared. I wear my heart on my sleeve and in the end you get your rewards.
"It shouldn't matter who we play, we have to take it to the next level and really believe in ourselves. We're doing it the hard way but it's feeling pretty good at the moment.''