JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Oct 7, (Agencies): Saudi Arabia’s Nassir Al Shamrani scored late to deny Australia a crucial victory in Thursday’s World Cup 2018 qualifier between the top two sides in Asian zone Group A.
The entertaining 2-2 draw ensured both sides maintained their unbeaten start after three matches in the final round of qualifying for Russia.
Shamrani struck in the 79th minute, sweeping home from close range just eight minutes after Tomi Juric had finished a well-constructed move to put the Socceroos on the verge of claiming victory.
Shamrani was playing his first game for Saudi Arabia for 18 months.
The fact he was the man who scored the equaliser would have been especially annoying for Australia as Shamrani was a central figure in an infamous confrontation between his club side Al Hilal against Western Sydney Wanderers during the 2014 AFC Champions League final.
The home side, roared on by a partisan crowd of more than 51,000, could have even snatched victory in the closing minutes but were denied by a fine save from Australian goalkeeper, Matthew Ryan.
Australia also had a chance to take all three points but the opportunity was spurned by Matthew Spiranovic.
The match sprung to life early on when a fine Saudi move resulted in the home side taking the lead in the fifth minute.
Taisir Al Jassim finished smartly from 10 yards after Yehya Al Shehri opened up the Australian defence to secure an early advantage for the Saudis.
Australia overcame their poor start, gradually forcing their way back into the game but it took until the 45th minute for them to draw level.
The equaliser came from a corner when Trent Sainsbury glanced home.
The result leaves Ange Postecoglou’s team top of the group with seven points, the same number as the Saudis, but with a better goal difference.
Close behind on six points are Japan who narrowly beat Iraq 2-1 earlier in the day, and the United Arab Emirates who defeated Thailand 3-1.
Thursday’s results set up an intriguing round of matches next week when Australia play Japan and the Saudis, now managed by Bert Van Marwijk, take on the UAE.
The top two sides from the group automatically qualify for the finals in Russia, while the team which finishes third will head to a play-off.
Australia coach Ange Postecoglou was unhappy with the way his side started and finished Thursday’s 2-2 draw with Saudi Arabia but said he was relatively satisfied to have taken four points from tough World Cup qualifiers in Jeddah and Abu Dhabi.
The Socceroos got off to a nervous start at King Abdullah Sports City and fell behind after five minutes to Taiseer Al Jassam’s opener, but gradually gained control and silenced the 51,000 crowd with goals from Trent Sainsbury and Tomi Juric.
The Saudis put the visitors under immense pressure in the final quarter and equalised with 10 minutes remaining through substitute striker Nasser Al Shamrani, who was recalled to the squad after an 18-month absence.
Al Shamrani received an eight-match ban in 2014 for spitting at Australian defender Matt Spiranovic after the second leg of the Asian Champions League final in Riyadh.
Australia lead Group B on goal difference from Saudi Arabia with both teams on seven points from three games. The Socceroos host fourth-placed Japan on Tuesday, while Saudi Arabia host United Arab Emirates, who are third in the group.
“Obviously not getting off to an ideal start didn’t help. They came out of the blocks pretty quickly,” Postecoglou told Fox Sports.
“But we worked our way back into the game really well. And we looked in control and once we got the second we should have maintained that.
“We lost our composure a bit a couple of times and they came into as well with a big crowd behind them. It’s a good point but you just feel we could’ve got more out of it.”
While a trip to Japan beckons next August, Postecoglou said he was pleased to come away with four points from two difficult away games. Australia beat UAE 1-0 in Abu Dhabi last month.
“Not many teams will come to these two places and come away with four points,” Postecoglou added. “We’ll take the point but disappointed we couldn’t take the three.”
The top two teams in Group A and B qualify automatically for the World Cup in Russia while the third-placed teams meet to decide who goes into a CONCACAF-Asian Zone playoff for a place at the finals.
South Korea were caught out by two Qatari counter attacks before fighting back for a 3-2 win in their World Cup qualifier on Thursday, and while coach Uli Stielike is concerned about defensive lapses he will not change their attacking focus.
The Koreans had been held to a dismal 0-0 draw with Syria in their last Group A encounter and were determined to get a quick goal to settle their nerves against Qatar in Suwon.
Skipper Ki Sung-yueng duly obliged with a rifled 11th minute opener but the hosts’ frailties at the back was exposed by Andres Quintana, who earned a converted penalty before scoring Qatar’s second to put the visitors 2-1 ahead.
The Koreans, aiming for a ninth consecutive appearance at the World Cup finals, equalised through Ji Dong-won before Son Heung-min grabbed the winner in the 58th minute and the 10-man hosts held on in the closing minutes.
With a difficult trip to Iran up next on Tuesday for the Koreans, tightening up at the back must be a priority for Stielike but the German said he would not temper his side’s attacking style.
“We focus on attack and this means we can be vulnerable against counter attacks,” he was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency on Friday.
“However, we’re not going to change our style of play and philosophy, although we do need to carefully boost our defence.”
South Korea trail leaders Iran on goal difference with seven points from three games, with Uzbekistan a point behind.
The top two in Group A and B qualify directly for the 2018 World Cup while the third-placed teams meet to decide who goes into a CONCACAF-Asian Zone playoff for another place at the finals.