Socceroos walk long World Cup tightrope against Syria

Ready or not: Tim Cahill training with the Socceroos on Monday. Picture: AAP Image/Brendan Esposito
Ready or not: Tim Cahill training with the Socceroos on Monday. Picture: AAP Image/Brendan Esposito

In case Australian fans didn't realise qualifying for the World Cup through Asia was tough, that fact has been rammed home throughout this campaign.

It began with the Socceroos laughing off the state of the facilities in Biskhek for the match against Kyrgyzstan: squat toilets in the change rooms and a cow paddock for a pitch.

But as results and performances frequently failed to meet public expectations, those complaints began to sound like excuses. 

Whether it was the pitches, training grounds, referees or opponents' gamesmanship and playing style, the Socceroos had plenty of cause to lament factors beyond their control.

On some occasions, they were unable to rise above them. On Tuesday night against Syria, they won't have to. 

One of the greatest bugbears for the national team is the quality of pitches they have to play on. Whether the multi-use venues in Australia not being of a high enough standard for football or soggy, heavy turf in places such as Kyrgyzstan, Iran or Malaysia, Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou has never held back when it comes to a sub-par playing surface. 

Much of that is due to his style of football relying heavily on a healthy, close-cropped paddock.

That is exactly what awaits the Socceroos on Tuesday, with the playing field at ANZ Stadium in perfect condition having had nine days of rest. More importantly, the players have had two full training sessions at the venue to become familiar with the surface. 

Tropical conditions have also hampered Australia away from home. The heat and humidity in Malacca last week were stifling for the Australians based in Europe, who struggled in such a sapping climate. 

"It was so humid. I haven't played in a game like that for so long," Switzerland-based striker Tomi Juric said.

On Tuesday night the mercury will sit at about 18 degrees at kick-off, close to the optimum temperature for football.

Football Federation Australia spared no cost in ensuring Postecoglou would have the best possible preparation, having forked out for a chartered jet to take them to Sydney immediately after the first leg against Syria. It meant the players arrived home early on Friday afternoon, as opposed to late that night. It shortened the turnaround and afforded them an additional recovery session over Syria.

The players are fit, rested and ready to play 120 minutes if necessary. Postecoglou has a full squad as suspensions haven't taken their toll. By contrast, Syria will enter the second leg without key defender Hadi Al-Masri, midfielder Khaled Almbayed and one of their best forwards, Omar Kharbin, who are all suspended. 

Postecoglou will make a number of attacking changes on the basis of Australia's strength in depth. Syrian coach Ayman Al-Hakeem will hope his forced changes won't reveal a thin talent pool. 

This is all before the matter of history is taken into account. Australia have only lost once in a home World Cup qualifier since moving to the Asian Football Confederation in 2006, and that was nine years ago in a dead rubber against China.

The Socceroos' record at home against west Asian nations is even more impressive – a 2-2 draw with Oman in 2013 is the only time they haven't won. The tyranny of distance Australia have become accustomed to is a rare, yet significant obstacle, few other teams experience. 

"The biggest distance any other nation needs to travel to play is to travel to play us," Postecoglou said. "I think teams, when they come to Australia, really struggle."

Logistics, preparation and circumstances are firmly in Postecoglou's favour.

There may be plenty of reasons the Socceroos find themselves walking the play-off tightrope instead of already packing their bags for Russia. But if they fail to advance, there can be no excuses. 

SOCCEROOS SCENARIO

Australia will proceed if:

They hold Syria to a 0-0 draw or if they win by any margin. 

Syria will proceed if:

They hold Australia to a 2-2 draw or higher scoreline or if they win by any margin.

The match will be decided by penalties if the score is 1-1 after extra-time.

Key role: Tom Rogic. Picture: AAP Image/Brendan Esposito

Key role: Tom Rogic. Picture: AAP Image/Brendan Esposito