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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: The mere mention of the name Omar Al-Somah is enough to send any Australian football fan into a cold sweat.
It may be over six years ago now, but everyone Down Under still remembers the night he terrorized Australia at Stadium Australia and came within centimeters of sending the Socceroos packing in the World Cup playoff on the road to Russia 2018.
Facing the prolific striker is not a prospect many in green and gold would fancy, so there was a collective sigh of relief when it emerged that he had been left out of Syria’s squad for this AFC Asian Cup, reportedly because of a dispute with head coach Hector Cuper.
Only a handful of players remain from that Syrian side that faced Australia back in October 2017, but the memories remain fresh of the challenge that the Qasioun Eagles provided to the Socceroos at a time when the country was ravaged by civil war.
The context for their next meeting, this week in Doha at the AFC Asian Cup, could not be any different to what it was in 2017. While the stakes are still high, there is no sudden death for either side. There is no place at the World Cup on the line.
The results from their respective opening games — a 2-0 win for Australia over India, and a 0-0 draw with Uzbekistan for Syria — mean both teams will go into their final group stage clash with hope of advancing should either suffer defeat at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium on Thursday afternoon.
Australia will be looking to build on their victory against India with a better performance when they face Syria.
While three points is three points, that Australia struggled to break down a resilient Indian outfit frustrated a fandom that wants to see their side play attacking and expansive football.
It remains the biggest question facing the Australian side, and coach Graham Arnold in particular — can this Australian side be the aggressors and play convincingly against more defensive-minded teams?
While Australia’s international reputation was enhanced by their showing at the World Cup in 2022, in many ways that was an easier forum in which to impress.
The Australians were coming off a lacklustre qualification campaign, just scraping into the final 32 after a penalty shootout victory against Peru, ironically in Qatar. By playing the underdog with their backs against the wall, a mindset from which Australian teams in any sport thrive, Australia were able to achieve their best World Cup result.
But while the opposition may be inferior, the challenge at this Asian Cup is arguably greater, because the situation is reversed.
Australia are now the favorites, not the underdogs. It is Arnold’s side that will be expected to dictate play and force the equation.
While the World Cup is fresh in the memory, so too is Australia’s failure at the last Asian Cup, where they were knocked out in the quarterfinals by the UAE and battled through the last round of World Cup qualifying where they struggled, badly, in the exact same scenario.
So, while the win against India was celebrated, the performance was not.
Arnold said: “There’s a lot to improve on. The boys know that. When you get a team together, they play all around the world, they play at different clubs, they have different styles, everything is different, and the hardest thing to do is to gel them together with the ball.
“Defensively, it’s easier to get them together. But the patience, the timing, and runs and movement off the ball, and those types of things are not easy to do.
“We have our standards. I have high expectations for the players and their performances, and those expectations and standards need to be met.
“We’re here to win the trophy. We’re here to win the Asian Cup, and you have to reach for the stars. And you have to have high expectations and put those expectations on the boys and get them to believe in what we can do,” he added.
Where India struggled to offer much going the other way, meaning Australia were rarely at risk of losing their opening clash, that will not be the case against Cuper’s Syrian side.
Al-Somah might be watching from the stands, but another Omar — Omar Khribin — remains in the squad, and while age catches up to all of us, he still presents a significant threat against a defence that will concede chances.
Then there is the unknown threat provided by the South America-born contingent, the likes of Pablo Sabbag and Ibrahim Hesar, who Cuper opted for in their opening game against Uzbekistan.
Both of Syrian heritage, the attacking duo have only been added to Cuper’s squad in recent months and are an unknown quantity at this level.
Neither, yet, have the fear factor of Al-Somah, but all that could change after Thursday.
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