“Don’t mess with Melaka” goes to script
The Socceroos are in the box seat at home - but they will be without their number one travelling supporter for the first time since February 200809 October 2017 | Pablo Bateson
The Socceroos took a small yet unconvincing step towards resurrecting their World Cup qualification campaign with a hard fought 1-1 draw against Syria last week.
This play-off tie is still in the balance. Only a victory in the second leg at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney on Tuesday will assure Australia of progression to the inter Confederation final play-off against the 4th placed side from CONCACAF.
The first leg against Syria on Thursday evening was played on a deceptive and difficult pitch surface of the Hang Jebat Stadium in Kubrong, about 18 kilometres from the city centre of Melaka in southern Malaysia. Considerable rain earlier in the week gave way to fine conditions on match day, with only moderate humidity. It certainly was not hot.
A crowd of only 2,150 witnessed a hard-fought and gripping encounter, which was a game of two halves in many ways. This included about 400 Aussie fans, made up mostly of expats from the region, and two sizeable groups of intense and vocal Syrian ‘active supporters’ on opposite sides of the stadium.
The first half was mostly dominated by Australia and it was no surprise to see them opening the scoring on 40 minutes. Mathew Leckie cut inside on the right and launched a fierce shot which was finely glanced in by Robbie Kruse.
Meanwhile, the 'Qasioun Eagles' seemed mostly content absorb the pressure and then take advantage of counter attacking opportunities. There only clear-cut chance came in the 34th minute when a cross from the right was met at the near post but fired well wide.
Early in the second half, striker Tom Juric broke free through the centre and fired a shot onto the left hand upright. Off the rebound, his instinctive strike found the same post and the Socceroos were denied a goal which could have finished off any chances for a comeback by Syria.
The good fortune seemed to stimulate the hosts who lifted their intensity to launch numerous attacks by at last using the full width of the park. Desperate defending kept them scoreless until the 85th minute when the Iranian referee gave one of the softest penalty decision I perhaps have ever witnessed in a World Cup qualifier.
How he judged that Leckie fouled his rival player is almost beyond belief. Even a Syrian expat sitting next to me in the grandstand for most of the game was left shaking his head. This was accompanied with terminology by him not able to be published due to its almost defamatory nature.
The penalty was comfortably put away by towering striker Omar Al Somah, sending the Syrian supporters into raptures. The game subsequently gradually faded away to end in a 1-1 draw, a disappointment for the reigning champions of Asia and yet renewed hope for their opponents.
Despite the dubious refereeing, a reality is that the Socceroos did not deserve to win.
At the post match press conference, Ange Postecoglou acknowledged that in the second half “we became fatigued in the conditions and lost our composure." However, he believed that “we still got a good result."
He must surely make changes for the second leg, and for example abandon the tactic to play our specialist attacking wide midfielder in a defensive right wing back role.
The defensive strengths which served Australia so well up until the away game against Saudi Arabia a year ago have faltered.
Once again the question must be asked as to why change from the previously successful back four formation? Perhaps the philosophy of Ange is yet to be effectively implemented due to limitations in technical capabilities and available player talent in key roles?
I wrapped up my brief time in Melaka with a post-game Friday morning visit to the training ground of Malaysian Super League club Melaka United. This local facility known as the Hang Tuah Stadium (with greatly reduced capacity since 2012) had been used by the Socceroos for three days, conveniently located near their hotel in the city centre.
The club’s head of media operations, Darren Teow, kindly hosted us, and shared some wonderful insights along the way about the development of Malaysian football and the vision for a club well and truly on the rise. A proud theme and powerful message for opponents and visitors to the club is “Don’t mess with Melaka”.
The assistance from Wan Fakhrul Wan Bakar of the Malaysian FA was also much appreciated in the lead up to the qualification play-off game.
Meanwhile the Socceroos left by coach for Kuala Lumpur immediately after the games for their Qantas charter flight overnight to Sydney. Arriving in the mid-afternoon on Friday, this enabled extra recovery time for the second leg only five days later.
If the Socceroos complete their immediate task, then it seems that the latter opponent is shaping-up to be Panama or Honduras.
Of personal significance, as I wrote here, the game in Melaka concluded my run of attending 47 consecutive World Cup qualifiers of the Socceroos since 2008. Due to lifestyle changes associated with my move from Sydney to a new base in Thailand, I will not be attending the second leg in my home city. Instead I will be joining other expats at a sports bar in Bangkok to cheer on Australia live on television at 4pm local time (8pm AEDT).
Wherever you watch the game, let us hope that our Socceroos step up a notch or two to secure an emphatic win and keep alive the vision for Russia 2018 qualification.
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