Tim Cahill rescues Socceroos 2018 World Cup hopes with two goals over Syria

Tim Cahill celebrates his extra time winner. Picture: AAP
Tim Cahill celebrates his extra time winner. Picture: AAP

When the nation needed him most, Tim Cahill delivered. He always does. Australia's all-time leading goalscorer rescued the Socceroos' hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia by scoring two goals to clinch a dramatic 2-1 win over Syria in Sydney. 

The evergreen forward was all that separated the Socceroos from a stunning elimination at the hands of the Middle Eastern minnows as his 50th goal for his country salvaged a crucial victory from what was so nearly one of the most forgettable nights in the recent history of Australian football. 

Ange Postecoglou doubles down when the stakes are at their highest, but few predicted the gamble he would make at Australia's hour of need. Dropping his best player, Aaron Mooy, was just the start of it. Postecoglou deployed his most risky formation yet; A 3-1-5-1 system never used before in the qualifiers. With only one holding midfielder and five attacking, it was going going to be either a masterstroke or a spectacular failure on the grandest stage. Six minutes in, it began to look like the latter. 

Australia celebrate their win over Syria. Picture: AAP

Australia celebrate their win over Syria. Picture: AAP

When the sole deep midfielder, Mark Milligan coughed-up possession, Syria's Tamer Haj Mohammed exposed the systems flaws by breaking through the middle unopposed. His perfectly weighted pass found marksman Omar Al-Soma, who completed the embarrassment for the Socceroos by emphatically slamming the opener from close range. 

The away fans were in raptures, the home fans silent.

Injury was added to insult when winger Brad Smith was forced off in the tenth minute, giving Postecoglou a chance to atone for his obvious error. Instead of a like-for-like replacement, he brought on Mooy to add some much needed stability to the midfield.

He was bold enough to gamble, but big enough to admit his mistake and Australia reaped the rewards immediately. A quick exchange between Mooy and Rogic minutes after the former's introduction gave Matt Leckie space out wide. The Hertha Berlin man delivered a perfectly weighted cross that landed on the forehead of Tim Cahill and from close range, Australia's leading scorer made no mistake. 1-1. Game on and hope restored. 

Australia were rampant in their search for a second. James Troisi came close, Cahill was denied a tap-in by a superb save from Ibrahim Alma while the ever-dangerous Rogic came within a whisker of rattling the back of the net with a half volley from distance.

Australia continued their momentum after the restart as Mooy sought to make a statement against his omission, testing goalkeeper Alma from a free-kick. The Huddersfield midfielder's delivery from set pieces gave Australia another dimension to their attack, his corner on the hour mark was nearly turned-in by a leaping Leckie header. 

Australia's Tim Cahill (centre) and Tomas Rogic (left). Picture: AAP

Australia's Tim Cahill (centre) and Tomas Rogic (left). Picture: AAP

Rogic, chief tormentor, drew the best save of the game from Alma with a placed right shot in the 68th minute before shaving the post with a curling effort a minute later.  Australia should have put the tie to bed in the 90th minute. From the edge of the box, Rogic's low drive was deflected wide of goal from a desperate lunge from a Syrian defender.

Just three minutes into extra time, Mahmoud Al-Mawas was given his marching orders for a stamp on Robbie Kruse  to give the Socceroos the numerical advantage. 

And that's when Australia's saviour created history. Mooy fed Kruse into the box. A lobbed cross went across the face of it and   Cahill leaped highest to nod home his 50th international goal. After a night of gambles, the one Postecoglou made in keeping the Socceroos' favourite son on the pitch for 120 minutes was the one that will be remembered most. 

Sydney Morning Herald