For Syria, it's Mission Possible against Socceroos
A qualifying campaign that has defied civil war and internal splits has brought Syria within sight of a miraculous World Cup berth - if they can overcome Asian champions Australia.
Syria were given little chance of making an impact in Asia's qualifiers but, after reaching the regional play-offs, they stand four games away from Russia 2018.
Playing their "home" fixtures in Malaysia because of their country's civil war, Syria face Australia in Melaka today, before the return leg in Sydney next Tuesday.
The winners go into a two-legged clash with the fourth-placed team from the Concacaf federation - currently the United States.
Along their qualification route, Syria had scrapped to hard-fought draws against heavyweights South Korea and Iran, and wins over China, Uzbekistan and Qatar.
Syria coach Ayman Al-Hakim has forged a resilient unit which has an added goal threat since the return from the sidelines of forward Firas Al-Khatib, who had voiced support for the Syrian rebellion, and sharpshooter Omar Al-Soma, whose long absence was also believed to be for political reasons.
"Reaching the Asian play-offs is almost a miracle, no one expected us to reach this stage, given the tough circumstances we face in our country," Al-Hakim told AFP.
"It shows the will that the Syrians have and their ability to achieve the impossible. We hope to fulfil the dream of reaching the World Cup. It's the dream of every Syrian, every member of our team, whether the players, coaches, officials."
Syria, ranked 75th, have never reached the World Cup and they needed Soma's injury-time equaliser against Iran last month to force a 2-2 draw which took them into the Asian play-offs.
But the team are not without controversy, backed as it is by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who remains in power despite a conflict which has since killed more than 320,000 people and displaced millions.
Tonight, Syria start as underdogs against Australia, who have played at the last three World Cups and reached the last 16 in 2006, losing controversially to eventual winners Italy.
This time around, the Socceroos missed out on automatic qualification on just goal difference.
They will be without midfield talisman Mile Jedinak but Germany-based forwards Mathew Leckie and Robbie Kruse are in goal-scoring form.
Leckie has bagged four goals in seven games for Hertha Berlin, while Kruse has scored three in eight games for second-tier side VFL Bochum.
While acknowledging that it will be tough facing the Socceroos, Syria coach Al-Hakim is looking for weaknesses to exploit.
"Although the Australian team are strong, we are used to facing the big teams, and are no longer afraid of playing away matches," he said.
"There is no impossible in football and we have proven that... we have a chance to beat Australia." - AFP