Socceroos forced into play-offs for World Cup spot

Australia's worst fears were confirmed in the early hours of Wednesday morning, as a 1-0 win to Saudi Arabia over Japan saw them leapfrog the Socceroos into a direct qualifying spot for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Now, a home-and-away play-off with Syria awaits on the 5th and 10th of October (although the 'away' leg will be in a neutral country due to security fears).

If the Socceroos can successfully navigate through that, a pair of November games against the fourth-placed North American team (one of USA, Panama Honduras or Trinidad & Tobago) will determine whether or not Australia participates in the world's biggest sporting event next year.

After a frustrating contest on Tuesday night saw Australia struggle to a 2-1 victory over Thailand, care of a late Matt Leckie winner, the Socceroos were left relying on a Japan side, who had already qualified, to get at least a point against Saudi Arabia.

Many Australian fans were skeptical of how serious coach Vahid Halilhod??i?? would treat this fixture, with his team having already locked in a spot in Russia; but when a near full-strength team was named, hope was renewed for the green and gold.

And hope turned into belief in the opening 45 minutes, with Japan playing as though their own World Cup dreams were on the line. The Samurai Blue could well have been three up before the interval.

Striker Shinji Okazaki was played through on goal, only to stumble at the pivotal moment, and after a mid-half drinks break, the Japanese had a corner cleared off the line, before a sumptuous 25-yard volley from Hotaru Yamaguchi was well saved by the keeper Abdullah Al Muaiouf.

Despite all that pressure, it was the hosts who nearly stole the lead before the break, with fullback Mansour Al Harbi firing just over the crossbar a couple of minutes before the referee's whistle.

Incredibly, after the break another corner was cleared off the line not once, but twice - defender Hiroki Sakai, who was a nuisance from set pieces against Australia last week, had a glancing effort cleared off the line by the player on the far post, before the rebound came back to Sakai, only for a second shot to be blocked by the player stationed on the near post.

With all these chances failing to burst the back of the Saudi net, frustration was building for Japanese and Australian fans alike - and would have only grown when a Genki Haraguchi effort from just behind the penalty spot was shanked wide with the goal at his mercy.

Fahad Al-Muwallad was substituted on at the break in an attempt to give the Saudis a spark, and he should have given the home side the lead, and a ticket to Russia. He broke into the penalty area on the right flank, only for Elji Kawashima to produce the save of the night and deny him.

And after a pair of Okazaki missed headers, the chance fell to Al-Muwallad again ... and this time, he didn't miss, drilling a bullet into the top right corner.

To Japan's credit, they didn't allow the game to peter out - in fact, they pushed up so much that a second for the Green Falcons seemed more likely than an equaliser - Al-Muwallad may well have grabbed a second, as he continued to wreak havoc behind the defensive line.

After substitute striker Kubo fluffed an easy chance in the 89th minute, Australia's worst nightmares were confirmed - indeed, had they not been so profilgate on Tuesday night in Melbourne, a slim Saudi Arabian win may well have suited Ange Postecoglou's men just fine.

But instead, a complicated road trip awaits.

This story Socceroos forced into play-offs for World Cup spot first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.