Syria have already upset the odds by making it this far. Even leaving aside all the non-football issues the country is going through at present, the Qasioun Eagles were not expected to finish in the top three of a qualification group featuring Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, China and Qatar. After all, Syria have never really come close to reaching the World Cup in the past, while they never got beyond the first round of the Asian Cup in their five appearances to date. There was, in short, little to suggest that Syria would still be in with a chance of making it to Russia at this late stage of the process, even before their considerable off-field problems – which have forced them to play their qualifying fixtures 4500 miles away in Malaysia – were taken into account.
Despite all the obstacles between them and the World Cup, Syria now find themselves just two matches away from what would undoubtedly be a phenomenal achievement. Their campaign did not get off to the best of starts with defeat by Uzbekistan, but a hard-fought draw with South Korea was a sign of things to come as Syria edged into third place with a 3-1 victory over Qatar and a dramatic 2-2 tie in Iran, when Omar Al Somah struck in second-half stoppage time to lift his nation above the Uzbeks in the standings.
Unlike their upcoming opponents, Australia will be a little disappointed to be participating in the play-offs. The Socceroos have participated in the last three editions of the World Cup and were targeting a top-two finish in Group B, but sloppy draws with Thailand and Iraq proved costly and allowed Japan and Saudi Arabia to finish above them in the automatic spots. The campaign started brightly for Ange Postecoglou’s men with back-to-back triumphs over the Iraqis and the UAE, but August’s reverse against Japan and an unconvincing 2-1 win against Thailand have led to a decrease in optimism.
Regardless, the Australian public will still expect their side to get the job done with a minimum of fuss in the next few days. Postecoglou’s charges are expected to dominate possession and take the initiative in Malaysia, although question marks remain about the manager’s devotion to a 3-2-4-1 formation which has brought mixed success in recent times. Australia can be vulnerable down the flanks when using such a system, although it does ensure each player has several options for a short pass when the ball is in the centre of the pitch.
Despite being the home side – at least in name – Syria will look to take a reactive approach on Thursday. Head coach Ayman Al Hakeem is never shy to switch between formations, having employed 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 and 4-5-1 setups in his team’s last five qualifiers, but regardless of the precise shape Syria will look to remain narrow and compact in the defensive phase of play, before springing forward at speed on the counter-attack. This is a side adept at soaking up pressure, as evidenced by their four clean sheets in Group A.
Although Australia are highly likely to have too much quality for Syria over 180 minutes of football, a draw looks like a good value bet for Thursday’s first leg. Playing in Malaysia is clearly a disadvantage for the Syrians compared to hosting matches in Damascus or elsewhere, but they will have grown more accustomed to the Hang Jebat Stadium and will look to make the most of Australia’s poor form on the road – the Socceroos won just a single qualifier away from home in Group B, and that was way back in September 2016 when the UAE were defeated by a goal to nil. A draw with both teams to score is my tip here, while under 2.5 goals in total is another wager worth considering.