Socceroos stay top after hard-fought draw with Saudi Arabia


Australia hung on for a pulsating 2-2 draw with Saudi Arabia in Jeddah to stay top of their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying group.

The Socceroos came back from an early goal down to take a 2-1 lead with 20 minutes to go but controversial striker Nasser Al Shamrani netted a late equaliser for the home side.

In his first international appearance for two years, Al Shamrani – who was banned for eight games for spitting at Western Sydney Wanderers’ Matt Spiranovic in the 2014 AFC Champions League final – scored in the 80th minute to salvage a point for the Green Falcons in front of a raucuous crowd at King Abdullah Sports City.

It leaves Australia undefeated on top of Group B with seven points – but only ahead of Saudi Arabia on goal difference, with Japan and the United Arab Emirates one point behind and tied for third.

Tuesday’s qualifier in Melbourne against Japan – who beat Iraq 2-1 thanks to a 95th-minute winner early in the day – now has even greater importance.

Ange Postecoglou’s side were on course for a remarkable come-from-behind win after they trailed just five minutes after kickoff but they took a 2-1 lead through goals from Trent Sainsbury and Tomi Juric.

They made a nervy start in front of 51,616 screaming fans and looked rattled when midfielder Taiseer Al Jassam put away a cutback from Yaha Al Shehri to open the scoring.

But with the home side seemingly content to sit back and defend their lead, the Socceroos eventually settled and took control of the game, owning 55 per cent of possession despite energy-sapping heat and humidity.

Just before the half-time break, Sainsbury rose highest to nod home an Aaron Mooy corner – Australia’s first for the match – to bring a hushed silence across the stadium.

Saudi Arabia coach Bert van Marwijk produced his trump card early in the second half, sending Al Shamrani on to mass applause in the 54th minute.

He made an immediate impact, and along with Nawaf Alabid forced his nemesis Spiranovic into a heroic double block to keep scores at one goal apiece.

Tensions nearly boiled over when Saudi Arabia players were urging the ball to be put out of play to allow treatment for defender Omar Othman, who was lying on the ground behind play.

A fuming Postecoglou had to be held back by the fourth official as he reacted to what appeared to be a verbal barrage from the opposing bench.

Othman was taken off on a stretcher with Saudi Arabia’s final substitution and not long after, a cross from Robbie Kruse unleashed Juric, who put the visitors 2-1 in front.

However, the lead lasted just eight minutes, as Al Shamrani managed to get a foot on a shot from Hassan Muath Fallatah in the 80th minute to guide it past Mat Ryan and add further intrigue to this stage of FIFA World Cup qualification.

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