Syria's dreams of a World Cup debut were dashed by Tim Cahill's aerial prowess as Australia's record goalscorer converted an extra-time header - his second of the match - to put his side into a play-off.
The Melbourne City midfielder's 50th international goal came in the 109th minute to finally break the resilience of their opponents, who were reduced to 10 men in the first additional period.
Syria's fairy tale looked like continuing when Omar Al Soma struck in only the sixth minute to give the war-torn nation a 2-1 aggregate lead at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney.
But Cahill soon equalised with a trademark header and, despite some resilient defending, he scored the winner with 11 minutes to go to book their place in the intercontinental play-off against the fourth-placed CONCACAF side, which will be Panama, Honduras or the United States.
Syria, gripped by civil war for six years, were missing five key players but that did not seem to impede their start as they went ahead when Tamer Mohamd dispossessed Mark Milligan to counter-attack and set up Al Soma to shoot high past Maty Ryan.
It was their one bright spot in a half of almost total domination by the hosts, who enjoyed 80 per cent possession but could not capitalise.
The introduction of Huddersfield midfielder Aaron Mooy, surprisingly left out of the team, after just 11 minutes because of injury to Bournemouth defender Brad Smith prompted a change in formation but led to almost one-way traffic.
Matthew Leckie, whose inviting right-wing cross was converted by Cahill, saw a close-range effort on the half-hour blocked by Zaher Medane as Syria's defence held on.
Early in the second half Leckie powered a header wide before Ibrahim Alma saved well at his left-hand post to deny Celtic midfielder Tom Rogic, whose deflected shot wide in the 90th minute was their last chance before extra-time.
Syria continued to hang on - their task was made more difficult by the dismissal of Mahmoud Al Mawas for a second yellow card - and Alma brilliantly tipped over Nikita Rukavytsya's near-post volley at the end of the first period.
But despite getting his hand to the ball, the goalkeeper could not keep out Cahill's second header in the 109th minute.
There was still time for one dramatic twist when Al Soma lined up a 30-yard free-kick in added time but his shot crashed against the post with the goalkeeper beaten.
Wow! Al Soma came within a couple of inches of putting Syria though in the final minute of this eventful match, but his side's hopes of making it to Russia 2018 are over.
As for Australia, they now face a play-off against the fourth-placed team from Central America. With one match to play in their qualification process, there are still three teams in the running for that Central American spot: Panama, Honduras and United States.
Syria's World Cup journey is over.
Australia 2 Syria 1
Syria continue to load the Aussie penalty area, repeatedly lumping the ball upfield... but the whistle goes for offside. Is that it?
...Al Soma will take! And he hits the post! Ryan was beaten to his left, but the ball thuds against the upright and Australia survive.
Oh wow! Syria have a free-kick 25 yards out from goal, bang in the centre of the pitch. One of the Syria defenders is down on his knees praying! They can't, can they...?
What a tackle. Degenek needed to time it right as he dived in and he did indeed read the tackle to perfection just at the moment that Al Soma darted into the Australian penalty area.
Kruse is indeed off the pitch so both teams will finish this match a man down. Is there another twist in this tie?
Cramp is kicking in for Kruse so it looks to be 10 versus 10. He can hardly move.
Time for a Syrian long throw. Al Soma flings the ball into the mixer, but Australia scramble it away to safely.
There was complete delirium inside the stadium when that goal went in, after 109 minutes of nerve-jangling football. Australia are continuing to maintain possession since taking the lead - the numerical benefit taking its toll on the visitors.
Surely that is it. Surely? The Syrians are out on their feet.
GOAL! Australia 2 Syria 1
TIM CAHILL WITH ANOTHER HEADER!!!! Kruse lifts a cracking ball into the danger area from the left and Cahill does what Cahill does best. He rises highest and nods past Alma.
Should that be a penalty? Australia are convinced it should have been as Rukavytsya goes down under a tackle inside the box, but the referee thinks otherwise. That was a very close call and he could well have pointed to the spot. Contact did appear to have been made between the players, but certainly no contact with the ball.
Australia kick off for the final 15 minutes of this match and immediately launch another offensive. Juric sidesteps past one man, dummies a shot to beat a second, but his long-range effort is easily held by Alma.
This is it
These players look shattered.
Half-time in extra-time
Australia 1 Syria 1
Close again from Australia. Mooy whips a thunderous cross in from the right, Rukavytsya volleys towards goal from close range and Alma palms over the bar. Syria then have an opportunity to break from the resulting corner, but Milligan gets a crucial toe on the ball to snuff it out.
Such tired football on display now. There are two minutes of stoppage time to be played.
This is increasingly desperate from the Syrians, who are attempting to win fouls wherever possible, appealing loudly at the referee. Needs must, I suppose. Still, pretty grim to watch.
Australia are trying to move the ball quickly, but still the Syrian defence continue to keep them at bay. Can they create the opening from this, their umpteenth corner of the match? Mooy's delivery is nodded back out of play from a Syrian defender so Mooy will do the same thing... and this time Jurman's header goes wide.
Syria have all their men behind the ball and Al Baour wins a free-kick after colliding with an Aussie striker when heading clear. That's his cue to go down holding his face, despite the fact that there was no connection with his face whatsoever. Syria are going to do everything possible to run down the clock here. Two minutes wasted... and he's straight back up and running.
You have to expect Australia will benefit from almost 100 per cent possession with the extra man from this point onwards, but Syria continue to be dogged in defence as a second successive Aussie cross sails straight out of play.
Al Mawas takes forever to get off the pitch, with his walk increasingly slowing the nearer he gets to the touchline. I suppose there is no fourth official left to hurry him up...
A final Australian change sees Juric replace Rogic.
Australia close to taking the lead yet again! This time it is Rukavytsya whose shot is well saved. But Syria are now down to 10 men! Al Mawas goes in a little recklessly on Kruse and - despite his many protestations - is shown a second yellow card.
So, here we go again. You have to think that Syria might increasingly tire as this match goes on, with one of their players (Mardikian) already forced to go off with cramp.
Ravshan Irmatov the referee from Uzbekistan has picked up an injury and has now been replaced by fourth official Ilgiz Tantashev. Wonderful stuff. Extra-time, here we come...
The CONCACAF team that finishes 4th will feel better seeing that neither Australia nor Syria are very good. At all.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 10, 2017
On we go
There will be 30 more minutes of extra time and then penalties. Something has to split these two sides today.
Australia 1 Syria 1
Australia just cannot find a way through and are forced all the way back into their own half.
Forward come the Aussies, but the referee says Kruse controlled the ball with his arm (which he did) and Syria have the chance to slow things down again.
Four minutes of stoppage time to be played.
So close to a winner for the Aussies! Leckie is the provider again down the left, he picks out Rukavytsya at the far post, who lays off to Rogic in plenty of space about 10 yards out, but the shot is deflected wide.
Syria make their final change as Omari comes on for Mardikian.
Another Syria yellow card goes to Hamwiah for a high boot.
A brilliant run from Leckie sees the wing-back cut inside from the right and work some space for a shot, but his effort is blocked on its way to goal. Syria then immediately break down the other end, but Al Khatib slips at the crucial moment when just about to receive a throughball on the edge of the Aussie penalty area.
The Aussies are trying to push, but they are not creating the space they enjoyed in the first half and this has turned into a more even affair.
Into the final 10 minutes and we are heading for extra-time at the moment. Surviving, for now...
Credit to the Syrians, they have not shut up shop here and are looking to pinch the ball high up the pitch at every opportunity. Al Mawas cynically kicks Mooy to slow play down and he is the fourth man to both receive a yellow card and also be ruled out of the next match (if Syria make it).
Some brilliant crowd shots betray just how worried the Aussie fans are in Sydney right now. Nails being bitten, heads being held etc.
Mido knew he was taking a risk, flying in on Leckie off his feet and the referee blows for a foul about 25 yards out to the right. Another decent position to have a dig. That free-kick will wait while changes are made: Rukavytsya for Troisi for the Aussies. And it seems Mido is going to have to come off after injuring himself in that challenge. He will be replaced by Hamwiah, who is making his debut.
Anyway, Rogic is the man to strike the free-kick... he goes low, but fires into the wall.
The Syrians are breaking with so much more purpose and yet again it is substitute Al Khatib threatening to do the damage. This time he bursts through the heart of the Aussie defence, but his cutback doesn't find Al Soma.
Straight down the other end come Australia and Rogic thinks he's scored with a well hit drive from the edge of the penalty area, only for Alma to get down brilliantly and palm the ball past his post. That was a superb save that keeps this match in the balance.
The nerves are jangling in Sydney as the clock ticks down. Cahill's header is weak from a Mooy corner and pops up nicely into Alma's hands.
Syria are looking so much more dangerous on the break since Al Khatib came off the bench. This time the ball is fizzed across goal, but Al Soma decided against gambling and remained on his heels as it passed harmlessly beyond the far post.
Here is the scene in Damascus right now:
Al Soma gets the wrong side of Sainsbury, but he is forced wide and his shot is weak into Ryan's hands. The visitors are enjoying their best period of the match here.
Al Khatib has an immediate impact with some neat interplay down the left wing. The ball is worked to Mardikian, who tries his luck from range, but Ryan catches easily. Al Khatib's presence will help Syria going forward (he will sit just off striker Al Soma) but what effect will it have at the back? It may well open things up for the Aussies, whose fans are starting to look increasingly nervous.
A wonderful slalom run from Rogic down the middle brings the crowd to life before he lays off to Kruse, who wins a corner. Mooy's delivery is good and Leckie rises highest, but his header rolls just past the far post with a relieved Alma watching helplessly.
Syria make their first change of the match with the dangerous Al Khatib (who turned the first leg) coming on in place of Jaffal. Remember, if Syria score then Australia will need two due to the away goals rule.
Syria are starting to feed nicely off second balls after lumping long in the direction of Al Soma, so do not fall into the wrong impression that the Aussies are the only ones with a chance of taking the lead here. Al Mawas has his shot charged down, before the follow-up is easily held by Ryan.
The Syrian defence is working on over-drive here, forcing Rogic into a long-range strike. He connects well with his left foot from 25 yards, but Alma holds on cleanly.
It's worth mentioning that all three men to have been booked so far (Leckie, Milligan and Mardikian) would all miss their team's next match - if they advance through this play-off - due to cumulative yellow cards in the competition.
Kruse crosses in the direction of Cahill, but the skipper can't bring the ball down cleanly and the chance passes.
As with the first half, it's all Australia since the break. The likes of Troisi, Mooy, Rogic and Kruse are repeatedly driving at the Syrian final third.
... Mooy is the man standing over the free-kick. His effort is in the direction of the top corner, but with far too much loop and not enough power, which allows Alma to move to his left and catch it with ease.
Jurman is clattered with a late challenge and Mardikian is the first Syrian player to go into the book - a decision that is greeted with ironic cheers from the home fans. Rogic then wins a second free-kick about 25 yards out and just to the right of goal. This is a cracking spot to have a dig...
Syria get the second half going... and promptly cede possession. As you were, then.
Here come the players
45 minutes to decide their fate. Maybe. Then another 30 minutes. Maybe. Then penalties. Maybe.
Time for a breather
Well it wasn't the start we were expecting with Syria pouncing on an error to take the lead, but since then the game has rather fallen into the groove of the first leg. Cahill levelled things at 1-1 and the home side have dominated proceedings since that moment although possession has yet to equal goals. As things stand we are going to extra time and penalties. Back shortly.
Australia 1 Syria 1
The Aussies are appealing for a penalty and the crowd are convinced there was a handball from a Syrian defender as the ball bobbled around the penalty area, but the referee waves away all appeals.
Mooy is still pulling the strings, as he has done since coming off the bench. He is operating at the heart of the Aussie midfield with Kruse having moved out to replace the injured Smith on the left. Into one minute of stoppage time.
It's very much attack versus defence for now, with Syria making do with snatches of play on the break. Some brief respite comes from a Milligan foul, and the Australian central midfielder is booked for his troubles.
Syria are increasingly - and understandably - sitting ever deeper with Australia retaining possession well and Al Soma regularly the only red shirt in the opposition half.
And close again! A bouncing balls falls nicely enough for Rogic about 25 yards out from goal and the Celtic man controls neatly with his thigh before thumping a powerful shot just wide of the Syria post, with Alma scrambling to his left.
Here's what that Syria goal meant to Al Soma a bit earlier:
The Aussies are having so much joy down the left at the moment, although Kruse is repeatedly straying into offside positions. Again he is penalised for straying somewhere he shouldn't.
The chances are coming now. Leckie leaves his defender for dead with a neat cutback down the right flank. That creates some space for a shot and his drive is held (at the second time of asking) by Alma diving low to his left.
So close! Troisi and Mooy play a neat one-two to cut their way through the Syria defence before the ball is laid off to Cahill. The captain turns his body and scuffs his shot, which takes a deflection and is booted clear yards from the goalline. Mooy has changed things significantly since replacing Smith down the left.
It's taken a while, but the match has settled into the expected groove now with Australia comfortable in possession. They have already found out to their cost that the Syrians can do the damage on the break though.
A first yellow card of the day is shown to Leckie for... nothing really. A fairly innocuous challenge. The Australians break in such numbers when entering Syria's final third and Rogic earns a corner after a smart move involving Mooy and Kruse.
Australia are starting to find their groove and Mooy is at the heart of it. He threads in Rogic down the left, but just as the Syrians are about to press the panic alarm the offside flag is raised.
Back come the Aussies. This time it's Troisi - who has started sluggishly so far - driving hard and strong from the edge of the penalty area and forcing Alma to get down low to palm behind for a corner that comes to nothing.
This game has been played as breakneck speed and the Syrians are coming back at the hosts now. First Al Ajan has his long-range effort charged down. Then Al Mawas brings a cross-field ball down beautifully on the left, before crossing deep to an unmarked Al Soma at the far post, only for the ball to sail inches over the goalscorer's head.
GOAL! Australia 1 Syria 1
What a cracker and it's the team's big name who does the job: step forward Tim Cahill. But, my word, Leckie deserves the bulk of the credit. The wing-back hares down the right flank before delivering a peach of a cross right onto Cahill's head. From that position the former Everton man only has to provide the finish and he nods with ease past Alma. That cross was inch-perfect.
The Australians have just not got going at all so far today and they are forced into an early change as Brad Smith hobbles off injured, with Aaron Mooy - who was dropped for this match - coming on in his place.
"You couldn't make this stuff up," says the commentator. I'm worried for a man whose imagination doesn't stretch to an early injury in a football match.
They couldn't, could they?
Some real sloppiness in the Aussie ranks so far.
GOAL! Australia 0 Syria 1
That was not at all expected, but Syria can be lethal on the counter-attack. It is Milligan who slips up around the centre circle and the Syrians pounce. Mohamd seizes on the mistake and charges forward into space, before lifting his head, spotting Al Soma in space to his left and calmly slotting in the forward, who lifts the ball over Ryan and into the Australian net.
Here comes Rogic. The central midfielder suckers in one, two and then three Syria defenders with a dangerous, winding run through the middle of the park. He lays off to Troisi, who attempts to work some space on the edge of the box but his left-foot shot is weak and Alma untroubled in goal.
Australia dominated the first leg of this tie in Malaysia and the early stages of this encounter suggest it will be a similar story tonight, with the men in yellow enjoying plenty of possession.
An early foray forward sees Jaffal unleashed down the Syrian left wing, but Leckie puts his body in the way of the ball and is bundled over to earn the foul.
Australia will get things under way. Big noise from the Syria fans inside the stadium.
Here come the players
It's almost game time.
Plenty of Syria fans have made the trip to Sydney tonight:
Ins and outs
The big news from an Australian point of view is that Huddersfield's Aaron Mooy misses out, with Tom Rogic called into the starting line-up. Tim Cahill, who is chasing his 50th international goal, also starts - replacing Tomi Juric - and captains the side.
Syria have three players suspended: defender Hadi Al-Masri, midfielder Khaled Almbayed and forward Omar Kharbin.
Syria team news
Starting XI: Ibrahim ALMA, Moayad AL AJAN, Jehad AL BAOUR, Mahmoud AL MAWAS, Omar AL SOMA, Ouday JAFFAL, Tamer MOHAMD, Hamid MIDO, Zaher MEDANE, Mardek MARDKIAN, Fahad YOUSSEF
Subs: Mahmoud AL YOUSSEF, Ahmad MADANIA, Gabriel SOMI, Amro JENIAT, Feras AL KHATIB, Israa HAMWIAH, Yousef KALFA, Alaa AL SHBBLI, OsamaOMARI
Story behind the team
I am going to make this a politics-free zone for the rest of the match. But there are two pieces on Syria's footballing journey that I highly recommend reading prior to kick-off if you have time.
Little in Syria has escaped the deep sectarian schism dividing the country, making its football team a rare example of pluralism.
Its mix of ethnicities and religions reflects Syria’s complicated tapestry. Somah and Khatib are Sunni Muslims, goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma belongs to Assad’s Alawite sect, forward Mardik Mardikian is Armenian and midfielder Mohamad is Circassian.
They stand together before each match to sing the anthem under the Syrian flag.
“We all know that the players have different religions and political views, but for me the national team is like a school, like a cultural centre,” Yamen, a 28-year-old Syrian from Damascus now living in Beirut, told the Telegraph.
“The government is always trying to control the team and make it look as if they represent it. Some Syrians therefore feel that by watching it we are only then enforcing what it wants to prove. But that is not right, this is a national team representing all of Syria.”
This one here is a comment piece written by Oliver Brown. It is entitled "Syria's World Cup 2018 story is a political football for a despicable tyrant", which pretty much gives away what side of the argument it stands. Here is a snippet:
Football, according to Syrian team spokesman Bashar Mohammad, is a “dream that brings people together – it gives people a smile and helps them forget the smell of destruction and death”. This narrative of a miracle is happily swallowed by more credulous news outlets such as Russia Today, the Kremlin-financed propaganda network that dare not rock the boat in Vladmir Putin’s relationship with Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad. Look deeper, though, and this is no Cinderella story. This is a team representing a ruler accused by the United Nations of more than two dozen chemical weapons attacks on his own people.
Just in case you need reminding, the first leg 1-1 draw came after Robbie Kruse put the Aussies ahead and Omar Al Somah equalised late on.
That leaves the match in the balance, although - as per conventional two-legged tie football rules - away goals count for more than home goals. So Australia will advance if the scoreline remains 0-0 tonight.
A 1-1 scoreline after 90 minutes will mean extra time and penalties, while a 2-2/3-3/4-4/5-5 draw will mean Syria advance.
Oh, and if any team wins tonight then they triumph overall, obviously.
Syria team news
I can't quite locate at the moment. I'll stick it on here as soon as I do. Apologies.
Australia team news
What is this?
For either Australia or Syria, the World Cup dreams ends today. Win and the journey to Russia 2018 remains alive. Lose and the race is over.
The two nations fought out a 1-1 draw in last week's first leg in Malaysia, which means there is all to play for in this return tie in Sydney.
How did we get here?
Australia won half of their matches to finish third in their World Cup qualification group, behind Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Syria were not quite as comprehensive, scraping through in third place in their group with 13 points from 10 games.
What happens next?
Whoever emerges triumphant will play the fourth-placed team from Central America for a place at Russia 2018.
With one match to play in their qualification process, there are still three teams in the running for that Central Americans spot: Panama, Honduras and United States.