AL-AIN: Syria were left to lament that they came off second best in a survival of the fittest battle against the Socceroos.
That was the opinion of the side’s stand-in coach Fajr Ibrahim who felt that there was not much to separate the two sides in terms of ability, but claimed the Aussies were able to win 3-2 due to their superior fitness levels.
The defeat dumped Syria out of the Asian Cup at the first hurdle, and Ibrahim, who took charge foolowing Bernd Stange's shock sacking following their defeat by Jordan, was left to rue his players’ lack of stamina compared to their Australian opponents.
"Fitness was the critical factor," Ibrahim said.
"There wasn't a big difference apart from the fitness of the Australian team. They were superior.”
Considering the league that the majority of the Socceroos play in compared to the Syrians, the coach was probably right when talkng about the fitness levels of the two sides. In which case he had every right to be proud of his players. They only fell to defeat by virtue of a Tom Rogic's injury-time thunderbolt.
The result meant the Socceroos finished second in Group B behind Jordan, whose simultaneous 0-0 draw with Palestine gave the Palestinians hope of qualifying as one of the best third-placed teams.
Syria, vocally backed by thousands of their fans in Ai-Ain, twice fought back from a goal behind before Rogic slammed home the winner in the third minute of injury time.
Injury-hit Australia, with only six outfield players on the bench, needed just a draw to go through and they got there — but there were twists along the way.
“It was a helter-skelter game at times,” Australia coach Graham Arnold said.
“On another night we could've scored more goals but it was a great learning process for our young players. It was a good performance just in terms of the grit and determination.”
Syria looked an early threat before Australia started to get a grip on the game and Hibernian striker Jamie Maclaren flashed a header just wide.
There was drama on the half-hour when a Syrian free-kick bounced through a packed penalty area and into the net, but the goal was ruled out for a foul on Mark Milligan.
But Australia were getting close and Awer Mabil, after seeing one raking shot blocked, unleashed a fabulous effort which curled into the top corner four minutes before half-time.
However, the lead lasted just two minutes as Mouaiad Alajaan's cross picked out birthday boy Omar Khrbin, turning 25 on Tuesday, who saw his header saved by Brighton's Mathew Ryan but then gobbled up the rebound.
On 54 minutes, there was controversy when Chris Ikonomidis's shot was hooked away by Omar Al Midani — but the ball was judged to have crossed the line by the additional assistant referee, who was surrounded by Syrian players.
The incident silenced the massed ranks of Syrian fans but there was uproar around the stadium shortly afterwards when their team vehemently claimed a penalty for a Milligan handball.
Australia looked firmly in control and they could have had a third goal when substitute Apostolos Giannou saw a low shot cannon off the base of the upright.
But Mexican referee Cesar Ramos threw Syria a lifeline when he gave them a penalty after Omar Al Soma went down in the box — and the striker stroked them level once more with 10 minutes to go.
It looked like Syria would escape with a vital point before Celtic's Rogic, playing the tournament with a broken hand, belted Australia's third from distance.