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Korea, Saudi reach World Cup, Syria into play-offs

Syrian football fans watch the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Iran and Syria on television at a house in the rebel-controlled town of Hamouria, in the Ghouta region on the outskirts of the Damascus September 5, 2017 © AFP / ABDULMONAM EASSA

Tehran, Iran, Sep 5 – Omar Al Soma’s stoppage-time equaliser took war-torn Syria into Asia’s World Cup play-offs on Tuesday, as South Korea and Saudi Arabia both booked their spots at next year’s tournament.

Syria were 2-1 down against Iran and heading out when Al Soma threaded his shot through goalkeeper Alireza Salimi’s legs in the third added minute, sparking wild celebrations.

The 2-2 draw means Syria, who have defied the odds while civil war rages in their country, now face Australia home and away, with the winner going into an intercontinental play-off.

On the final night of Asia’s qualifying group games, South Korea drew 0-0 with Uzbekistan to reach their ninth straight World Cup, while Saudi Arabia joined them with a 1-0 win over Japan.

Fahad Al Muwallad’s thunderous winner in Jeddah qualified the Saudis for their fifth World Cup, snatching the second automatic spot in Group B — and relegating Australia to the play-offs.

Iran’s Rouzbeh Chashmi (R) vies for the ball against Syria’s Moualad al-Ajjan during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran on September 5, 2017 © AFP / ATTA KENARE

The Koreans, Saudis and already-qualified Japan and Iran will now hope to improve on Asia’s disappointing 2014 World Cup, when no team from the region reached the knock-out stage.

South Korea spurned several late chances before settling for the 0-0 draw in Uzbekistan, grabbing the second automatic berth in Group A as their heartbroken hosts missed out.

Syria’s heroics also extinguished China’s faint hopes of reaching only their second World Cup, despite snatching a 2-1 win over 2022 hosts Qatar thanks to Wu Lei’s late winner.

Earlier in Group B, Australia won 2-1 against Thailand but they will rue their failure to score more as they missed out on an automatic place on goal difference.

The United Arab Emirates also saw their dream die when they lost 1-0 to Iraq to finish fourth in Group B.

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– ‘Heroes on the pitch’ –

But there was jubilation in Tehran as Syria extended their dream run, after Tamer Mohamad and Al Soma became the only players to score past Iran in the final qualifying round.

Iran’s Ashkan Dejagah (L) vies for the ball against Syria’s Zaher Almedani during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran on September 5, 2017 © AFP / ATTA KENARE

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.”

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.

Saudi Arabia’s Yahia Alshehri (C) fights for the ball against Japan’s Hotaru Yamaguchi (L) and his teammate Shibasaki Gacu during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match in Jeddah on September 5, 2017 © AFP / STR, STR

After the break, Kim Min-Woo’s curling shot nearly opened the scoring following an intricate move around the box, and veteran striker Lee Dong-Gook headed off the bar in the 86th minute.

Later in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia pulled off a deserved victory over Japan courtesy of half-time substitute Al Muwallad’s fiercely hit winner in the 63rd minute.

The livewire forward smashed his shot past a static Eiji Kawashima to take the Saudis to their first World Cup since Germany 2006.

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