It was a frustrating night for Australian football fans after the Socceroos were only able to manage a 2-1 win over a stubborn Thailand at AAMI Park on Tuesday night.
They will now have to play two playoff ties if they are to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Saudi Arabia booked their place in Russia with a 1-0 win over Japan, relegating the Socceroos to third in the group, with the one-goal win not enough to make up the goal difference against the Saudis and forcing them into a crucial playoff against Syria.
The winner of the two-leg tie will play the fourth placed side in CONCACAF qualifying in another playoff, likely to be the United States, Honduras or Panama.
The Socceroos will now have to repeat the heroics of 12 years ago if they are to qualify.
Needing a big win over their 130th ranked opponents, Australia peppered the Thailand goal, mustering 40 shots and dominating possession 70-30.
But the spirited Thai defence proved to be a tougher nut to crack than expected, defending deep and getting in the way of a number of shots.
Despite their chances, Australia were equally wasteful and unlucky, only recording 13 of 45 shots on target., including three which hit the post. Poor delivery into the box also let the Thais off the hook.
It took until the 69th minute before Tomi Juric was finally able to break the deadlock, heading home a superb Aaron Mooy cross from a set piece.
Needing more goals, coach Ange Postecoglou dragged off defenders Alex Gersbach and Bailey Wright, replacing them with more firepower.
But the move backfired after a disorganised defence allowed Pokkhao Anan to level the scores in the 82nd minute, taking a deflection from the crossbar as it went in.
With less than five minutes of regular time remaining, Mathew Leckie found himself in space from a corner as the Thais desperately clung onto the draw.
In a rare piece of good fortune which had eluded them for most of the game, Leckie’s shot from eight yards found its way between four sets of Thai legs before finding the back of the net.
The Australians pushed hard for another goal but the match finished at 2-1.
Post-game former Australian goalkeeper Mark Bosnich launched a scathing attack on Postecoglou, claiming a dispute between the FFA and the players’ association had clouded his judgement.
“He comes up with a back three, which for me is not a problem, but the problem is the timing” Bosnich said.
“It was right in the middle of qualification where, it wasn’t plain sailing but we looked comfortable. Since then, we’ve played nine games but only won three.
“For me it’s confused the players, they’ve lacked clarity in so many of the games.
“Don’t be using the national team as an experimental laboratory. It’s not there for that. It’s too important for that,” he said.
But Brisbane manager John Aloisi came to Postecoglou’s defence.
“What Ange has done for Australian football, don’t ever underestimate. I think we have to back him until we don’t qualify,” he said.
But despite the tougher road to World Cup qualification, playing quality Asian sides was the challenge Australia wanted when it moved to the AFC.
In the past, beating minnows like American Samoa and Tonga sometimes by double figures, while entertaining, did little to prepare the Socceroos for matches against higher quality teams from Europe and South America.
In 11 attempts, Australia only qualified twice from Oceania. Since moving to Asia, they have qualified in both attempts and are the reigning Asian Cup champions.
Although they only lost once in this qualifying phase compared to Saudi Arabia’s three losses and Japan’s two, a poor run of form headlined by four consecutive draws has ultimately condemned Australia to the vastly more difficult qualification path.
For now, the Socceroos’ squad members will head back to their clubs before the next round of qualifiers.
Syria’s run to the World Cup playoffs has been a truly remarkable story. The war ravaged nation has not played a game on home soil in their entire qualifying campaign.
The Socceroos will undoubtedly go into the tie as favourites, but will need to be wary of complacency, given both team’s recent results.
The dates for the next tie have been confirmed with Australia playing away (at a neutral venue) on October 5 before the home leg on October 10.
The draw for next year’s World Cup will take place in Moscow on December 1.