Memories of Iran show that nothing can be taken for granted

Job done. Up to a point.

Australia remains in the driving seat after a 1-1 draw in the first leg of its continental World Cup play off against Syria, but much work remains to be done in Sydney next week if the Socceroos are to advance to the final stage of qualification.

They will go into that game as favourites, but as any Socceroo fan over a certain age - and those who know their history - can recollect, Australia has been here before, almost twenty years to the month.

In November 1997 Australia did the hard work away from home when it got a 1-1 draw in Tehran against Iran in a deciding qualifier to reach the World Cup in France.

Most pundits and supporters thought that had put Terry Venables men in pole position, an opinion confirmed when they raced to a 2-0 lead (and squandered a myriad other chances) inside an hour at the MCG.

The Iranians, of course, famously nabbed two late goals to snatch a 2-2 draw and progress on the away goals rule, illustrating in graphic form to many Australians who were then not close followers of the sport how cruel a game soccer can be.

Still, in general, a score draw away from home in the first game of a two match series is a satisfactory result, even if there always is the feeling that once a team takes the lead and is still in front inside the last ten minutes then a failure to win is a victory thrown away.

But it can't be denied that the Syrians, having gone a goal down just before the interval, showed plenty of character, took the game to Australia and did enough in the second period to deserve a share of the spoils, even if it came in fortuitous fashion.

The manner in which the Syrians got their leveller late in the game - from a highly dubious penalty when Mat Leckie was judged by Iranian referee Alireza Faghani to have fouled Omar Al Somah - left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Australians.

Certainly Robbie Kruse, the man who put the Socceroos in front with a slick finish from a Leckie cross late in the first half, didn't mince his words, and neither did coach Ange Postecoglou.

The latter described the penalty decision as dubious and baffling, while Kruse hinted at a level of institutional bias against the Australians, saying the Socceroos "expected' such things to happen in the Asian Confederation with a referee who seemed to be looking to give a penalty at the first opportunity he had once there was contact in the area.

Whether or not conspiracy theories exist, it was impossible not to agree that this was the softest of all penalty calls.

However, the away goal means that a scoreless draw in Sydney would put the Socceroos through, but Postecoglou and his team will look to kill off the tie as soon as they can in front of their own fans.

With an ounce of luck this qualifier could have been dead and buried in the first half, when the Socceroos also hit the woodwork twice and looked far more impressive than they did in the second.

The selection changes made by the coach looked to have found a more fluid and better structured line up.

The inclusion of two specialist full backs in Aziz Behich on the left and Western Sydney's Josh Risdon on the right freed up Leckie, who has been a regular scorer in the Bundesliga this season, to play in a more advanced role in the right.

It also ensured that the clever Kruse could play in a similar role on the left of an attacking troika without having to worry quite so much about tracking back.

Aaron Mooy has established himself as the crucial player in Postecoglou's midfield mix, and he once again showed his importance in a first half where he controlled the tempo in the centre of the park for the Socceroos and created several chances with perfectly timed passes through the channels.

Australia made more use of long balls in this game than before, and it paid dividends in that opening 45 minutes as they were, through the pace and power of Leckie, the guile of Kruse and the speedy Behich, able to get in behind the Syrian rearguard.

Risdon aside - the A-League based player has not been involved competitively for several months - Postecoglou's selection and the first half performance in particular showed the benefit of picking fit, in form players who are turning out week in week out for their clubs.

Behich, restored to the side having been left out for the previous two qualifiers, is a regular in the Turkish top division. Debutant Matt Jurman is another starter for Suwon Bluewings in the Korean K-League, while Kruse, now fit and able to do himself justice, is playing and scoring regularly for Bochum in the second Bundesliga.

It was, for him, a perfect way to celebrate his 29th birthday with his first international goal in two and a half years.

Risdon, with a lack of game time, inevitably tired, and in many ways it was his departure that unbalanced Australia and gave Syria the chance to get back into the game.

It meant that Leckie had to drop back into that wing back space as Nikita Rukavytsya came on up front: that disrupted Australia's attacking flow and meant that Leckie, not a natural defender, had to drop deeper, nullifying his attacking threat and leaving him open to making the sort of challenge that was, erroneously, punished by the referee.

While the Iran game of 20 years ago is an uncomfortable reminder of how things can go wrong Australia should go into the second leg of this match in a confident frame of mind.

The pitch will be better, the home crowd noisy and supportive, and Postecoglou can ring the changes with plenty of fresh players ready to step in and do a job.

Expect Tom Rogic to start in Sydney, while Jackson Irvine, Massimo Luongo, James Troisi, Craig Goodwin and Brad Smith may all come into consideration.

This story Memories of Iran show that nothing can be taken for granted first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.