The Socceroos’ hopes of qualifying for next year’s World Cup have suffered a setback after they were held to a controversial 1-1 draw by China in the UAE.
Leading 1-0 after a first-half goal from Mitch Duke, the Socceroos were rocked midway through the second half when China was awarded a penalty for a handball offence against Jimmy Jeggo.
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VAR intervention was needed to rule against Jeggo, with a free-kick from Xu Xin glancing the Socceroos midfielder’s forearm as he rose high to deal with the dangerous set piece.
Referee Makhadmeh Adham studied the video footage on the sideline before awarding the spot kick.
Wu Lei calmly converted from the spot to drag China back into the game.
The Socceroos – who have picked up just two points from their past three qualifiers – are now five points behind Group B leaders Saudi Arabia, who beat Vietnam 1-0 to take a huge step towards reaching next year’s World Cup in Qatar.
The Australians have also dropped to third in their group, with Japan leapfrogging the Socceroos after a 1-0 away win over Oman.
Only the two top teams from Groups A and B of the AFC’s third round of qualifiers will automatically qualify for the World Cup.
Socceroos captain Mat Ryan was disappointed with his side’s performance, and refused to use the penalty as an excuse for Australia’s failure to win.
“I don’t think we did enough tonight,” Ryan said.
“We didn’t create enough clear cut chances. Obviously there’s a controversial talking point (with the penalty) but there are other moments throughout the game where we need to be better if we want to rake away a result.
“It’s important that we learn from what unfolded tonight and why we weren’t able to get the win.”
Victory seemed on the cards when the Socceroos grabbed a deserved lead in the 38th minute.
Martin Boyle was the provider with a dangerous near post cross that was powerfully headed home by Duke, who scored his seventh goal for the Socceroos.
Less than five minutes later Melbourne City star Mat Leckie had a good chance to double the Socceroos’ lead but was foiled by China goalkeeper Yan Junling.
The Australians started the second half well but the penalty changed the game, with the Socceroos’ intensity dropping and China gaining in confidence.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold made two changes to the team that started in last Thursday’s 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia in Sydney.
One was forced, with defender Milos Degenek replacing the injured Harry Souttar, who will be sidelined for up to 12 months after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
The other change was in attack, with Duke called into the starting side at the expense of Awer Mabil.
Each of the six teams in Group B have played six qualifiers. Saudi Arabia are top on 16 points, Japan are second on 12 points and the Socceroos are third with 11 points — four points ahead of Oman in fourth.