Socceroos robbed of win by late penalty for Syria
THE Socceroos were robbed of a crucial away World Cup qualifying win by a dubious late penalty.
In a duel that made Lucas Neill's 2006 contact with Fabio Grosso look like a clear-cut penalty, Iranian referee Alireza Faghani blew for a spot kick after Mathew Leckie's contact on Omar Al Somah.
The striker, who'd just returned from a six-year exile, coolly converted in the top right corner with five minutes left, cancelling out Robbie Kruse's first half opener.
Australian players sought an explanation from referee Alireza Faghani after the match.
It was a cruel blow for the Socceroos, who had produced one of their best recent performances in front of a majority Syria 4000 crowd at Hang Jebat Stadium in Melaka.
Socceroos players slammed the decision.
"It was evident to everyone it wasn't a penalty," Kruse said. "He's won the header clear as day and he's headed it outside the box.
"The guy is six foot five and has fallen down quite easily."
"You expect that from this referee, we've had him before. I think he wanted to give it as soon as he made contact.
"It's disappointing and we didn't deserve it."
Leckie himself described the decision as "very poor" and said a request for an explanation elicited threats of a second yellow card.
"It was just a cross and I thought I just went up fairly and won the header," Leckie said.
"It wasn't like I (made) body contact and tried to put him off, I actually won the header. I don't know what went through the ref's mind to give a penalty.
"Everyone's pissed off about the whole situation because I think everyone in the world that watched the game knows it wasn't a penalty."
Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou was equally baffled by the call, which was widely panned on social media.
"I don't have the hindsight of replays, but when a guy gets up and just wins a header I'm a bit bemused," Postecoglou said.
But the 1-1 draw still leaves the Socceroos in the box seat to advance heading into Tuesday's second leg at ANZ Stadium.
The Socceroos were on the verge of pulling off a stunning win, with Ange Postecoglou's tactical tweaks paying dividends.
With Josh Risdon replacing Mathew Leckie in the right wing-back role and traditional left-back Aziz Behich deployed on the opposite side, it was as conservative an XI Postecoglou has picked since switching to 3-2-4-1.
It worked a treat as it actually created more space for Kruse and Leckie to work with, with the latter replacing Tom Rogic who started on the bench in a qualifier for the first time in 18 months.
Kruse and Leckie both enjoy penetrating and their forward runs, coupled with the space in behind, caused Syria problems.
Defenders, perhaps with the assurance of their defensive-minded fullbacks, also carried the ball forward more than usual.
The aforementioned tweaks led to the opening goal, as right stopper Milos Degenek carried the ball forward and released Leckie down the right.
In textbook Leckie fashion, he lost his defender by cutting back onto his left and unleashing low and hard.
Kruse shrewdly gambled and stayed narrowly onside before glancing it in.
The Socceroos were tested earlier, but the back three remained composed marshaled by Trent Sainsbury, who took the lead so far as carrying the ball out went.
And when he was caught out, left-stopper Matt Jurman and Degenek mopped up, the former in an impressive international debut.
The Suwon Bluewings defender's height was also beneficial when Syria tried to exploit the height of striker Omar Al Somah.
Captain Mark Milligan was targeted by the Syrian players and he did well to remain composed and overcome early rustiness, which was a combination of the bumpy pitch and him being out of season.
With Milligan supporting and protecting Aaron Mooy, the Huddersfield midfielder began getting his foot on the ball and dictating the tempo and exploiting space with his vision and skill.
Tomi Juric, who led the line well, was stiff not to double Australia's lead just after the restart, twice striking the upright in one passage.
Syria pushed for an equaliser, with gun trio Omar Khirbin and Al Somah and Mahmoud Al Mawas causing issues via ad hoc but dangerous forays.
Postecoglou retaliated by throwing on his fastest player Nikita Rukavustya as the second striker to exploit the space in behind as Syria took more risks.
With Risdon withdrawn, Leckie returned to the wide right role.
Kruse was withdrawn for Massimo Luongo on 70 minutes to save some petrol tickets for the second leg.
It didn't deter Syria, who kept coming, with Postecoglou then turning to Tom Rogic, who started on the bench for the first time in a qualifier in 18 months, for the final 10 minutes.
Unfortunately his chance came after Syria had been gifted an equaliser, as his header from Mooy's set piece was saved by Ibrahim Alma.
Mat Ryan then pulled off a stunning save from Mouaiad Al Ajjan, leaving it deadlocked for the second leg.