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South Korea, Saudis into World Cup, Australia to face Syria

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AP, Seoul :
When Australia narrowly defeated South Korea in the final of the 2015 Asian Cup, the prospect that World Cup qualifying for these two continental soccer heavyweights would depend on war-torn Syria was barely even a consideration.
In the third round, with just the top two teams in each group qualifying automatically for Russia, South Korea scraped through in second spot in Group A. The Taeguk Warriors would have dropped to third if Syria had beaten already-qualified Iran rather than being held to a 2-2 draw.
Al Soma, who plays for a Saudi club, returned for the penultimate game with Qatar and then scored the all-important second goal against Iran deep into injury-time in Tehran.
While Syrians were euphoric at advancing to a playoff, the Australian players were already visibly shaken immediately after a 2-1 win over Thailand left their World Cup hopes hinging on Japan avoiding defeat in Jeddah.
The Asian champions had a frustrating evening in Melbourne, where their lack of composure and finish turned into panic as they chased the big winning margin they needed to put pressure on Saudi Arabia. Japan won the group with 20 points, one clear of the Saudis and the Australians, who only had one loss in the qualifying round - away to Japan last week.
Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou has subsequently come in for increasing criticism, with the likes of former Manchester United and Australia goalkeeper Mark Bosnich questioning if the coach was the right person for the job.
"I won't waste my time responding to criticism," Postecoglou said. "I won't be pushed into the shadows of Australian football history like others. I have survived worse than this."
South Korea has made qualification a habit since 1986, and sneaked into a ninth successive World Cup. Only five teams - Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany and Italy - have longer consecutive runs on the global stage.
The South Koreans finished second with 15 points, seven behind Iran. Syria collected 13 points, edging out Uzbekistan on goal difference.
Uzbekistan would have qualified with a win over South Korea in in Tashkent. The Koreans dominated a 0-0 draw and had a number of chances to win the game. The South Koreans failed, however, to get the goal that would have secured a World Cup spot without having to rely on Iran picking up a point against Syria.
"It's a pity that we couldn't win here, but I want to thank all fans here and South Korea that we're able to qualify for the World Cup with a draw," coach Shin Tae-yong said.

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