Opinion

Mabil, Ikonomidis brighten Socceroos' attack

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ANALYSIS: The Socceroos were expecting a dogfight from Syria and they certainly got one as their 2019 AFC Asian Cup ambitions went on the line.

And when the Australians needed to show their real character and temperament to survive a tricky assignment, they did not disappoint.

Australia reached the knockout phase of the competition with a hard-earned 3-2 victory in Al Ain that gave them second spot in Group B behind Jordan.

They now meet Japan or Uzbekistan in the round of 16 on Tuesday morning (AEDT). 

Australia and Syria met in the qualifying campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the Socceroos emerged 3-2 aggregate winners from a close playoff and this time it was again touch and go.

The Syrians held the upper hand for most of the first half and might have been slightly disappointed to go into the half-time break on level terms after Awer Mabil gave the Socceroos the lead with a sumptuous finish and Omar Khrbin equalised from close range almost immediately.

Australia regained the lead when Chris Ikonomidis connected with a speculative cross from Tom Rogic that eluded Syria's defence to slot the ball home, although Syria claimed it had not completely crossed the line. Television replays were inconclusive.

A few Syrian heads were dropping as the Socceroos enjoyed long periods of possession but with 10 minutes to go, and right out of the blue, they ridiculously were awarded a penalty when big striker Omar Al Soma appeared to trip over the legs of a teammate and the Mexican referee pointed to the spot. Al Soma converted by sending Mat Ryan the wrong way.

Syria earlier had far more legitimate claims for a penalty when Australia captain Mark Milligan handled the ball in the area but the referee - thankfully for the Socceroos - saw nothing wrong.

Syria threw everything at Ryan's goal in the last part of the match but in the end they were forced to surrender when Ikonomidis returned the favour to Rogic and the Celtic man did the rest with a thumping shot.

Rogic is finding form after his poor game against Jordan and the jaw-dropping pass through traffic he played to Jamie Maclaren in the first half deserved much better than a tame finish from the striker.

Coach Graham Arnold cut a very nervous figure on the sidelines as the Syrians, with the score at 2-2, mounted a desperate attempt to win the game in the latter stages so he would have been pleased with Australia's qualification after a shaky start to the campaign.

He also must be delighted with the positive influence Mabil and Ikonomidis are exerting on the team.

Mabil has been a revelation in the few times he has played for Australia and Arnold will have a big decision to make when or if Mathew Leckie recovers from the hamstring injury that has kept him out of the tournament.

Who knows, Arnold might be tempted to use Leckie as a main striker and retain Mabil on the right side.

Ikonomidis is growing in stature and confidence with every game and is an improvement on Robbie Kruse. He has one goal and four assists in the tournament so far with the promise of more to come.

On the down side, Maclaren again disappointed in the team's problem area. He worked hard as usual and got into good positions but his finishing was substandard and was replaced by Apostolos Giannou in the second half.

The next match should tell us if Arnold is beginning to lose patience with Maclaren.