JEDDAH, Sept 5, (Agencies): Saudi Arabia qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 2006 by beating Japan 1-0 in Jeddah on Tuesday to claim a place at the finals in Russia next year. The Saudis join Iran, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, Belgium and hosts Russia in the 32-team tournament, which will take place from June 14 to July 15.
Meanwhile, Omar Al Soma’s stoppage-time equaliser extended war-torn Syria’s World Cup fairytale on Tuesday, as South Korea booked their spot for the ninth straight time. Syria were 2-1 down against Iran and heading out, but in the third added minute Mardek Mardkian slid a pass to Al Soma, who finished through goalkeeper Alireza Salimi’s legs. The 2-2 draw was enough to give Syria third place in Group A and a spot in the Asian play-offs against Australi in Group B.
South Korea spurned several late chances before settling for a 0-0 draw in Uzbekistan, grabbing the second automatic qualifying spot in Group A as their heartbroken hosts missed out. But there was jubilation in Tehran as Syria, who have been playing home games in Malaysia to avoid the civil war raging in their country, continued to defy the odds. Syria’s goals from Tamer Mohamad and Al Soma were the first conceded in the final round by already qualified Iran, who were playing in their fortress Azadi Stadium.
Mohamad scored in the 13th minute before Iran equalised through Sardar Azmoun, who chested in a rebound on the stroke of half-time and then put the hosts ahead in the 64th minute. Al Soma’s heart-stopping goal had one Syrian team official in tears before the players hugged and celebrated at the final whistle. “God willing we will continue the journey … the qualifications have started again,” said Al Soma. “The players were heroes on the pitch from the first minute until the last minute.”
Mardkian said: “We played with a united spirit, for Syria, for the Syrian people, for the kids, for all the people.” He added: “We’re thinking about the play-off and there’s more work to do… We hope to achieve what is worthy of Syria’s name.”
In Tashkent, South Korea’s Hwang Hee-Chan hit the post early on before Azizbek Khaydarov also rattled the woodwork in the 21st minute in what was otherwise a tepid first half. After the break, Kim Min-Woo’s curling shot nearly opened the scoring following an intricate move around the box, as South Korea repeatedly pierced the Uzbek defence.
Veteran striker Lee Dong-Gook spurned a golden opportunity in the 86th minute when his free header came off the bar. Although the draw was enough for the Koreans, they will want improvements before the World Cup next June and July. The top two in Group A and B gain automatic entry to the World Cup, while the two third-placed teams face each other — with the winner going into an intercontinental clash against the fourth-placed side from the CONCACAF federation.
Australia 2, Thailand 1
In Melbourne, Australia beat Thailand 2-1 in their final World Cup qualifying group game on Tuesday. It wasn’t until the 69th minute that Tomi Juric got the opener, and the Thais — who earlier had a strong penalty appeal turned down — hit back through Pokklaw Anan before Mathew Leckie’s late winner. “We got at them, it was a little bit disappointing their goal on the counter, but overall we got ourselves in good scoring positions,” Australia skipper Mark Milligan said.
“I don’t know how many times we hit the post, we gave it everything we had tonight. Credit to Thailand, they hung firm on their 18-yard box for a long time.”
The Asian champions peppered the Thai goal from the outset, with Hertha Berlin’s Leckie featuring heavily on the right wing. Aaron Mooy and veteran talisman Tim Cahill both hit the post, and Tom Rogic’s long-range volley was saved by goalkeeper Sinthaweechai Hathairattanakool. Juric wasted a direct free kick, blasting high over the bar, and also had a great goal-bound chance blocked by Adisorn Promrak.
Thailand’s best moments came through their skipper Teerasil Dangda, and Australia goalkeeper Mat Ryan was fortunate to escape punishment for bringing down the forward wide of the goal area. The Socceroos had 15 shots to Thailand’s three in the opening half, with two on target and four blocked.
Thailand looked unlucky not to be awarded a penalty when Teerasil, on a breakaway, was brought down inside the box by defender Trent Sainsbury. Juric finally got the home side in front with his glancing header off a Mooy cross.