Firas Al-Khatib could hold key for Syria vs. Australia in World Cup playoff
Firas Al-Khatib didn't just raise eyebrows with just how short his shorts were when he came on as a second-half substitute for Syria in the first leg of their 2018 World Cup play-off against Australia. He also raised the tempo of the game, the quality in his team's ranks and their chances of going to Russia next summer.
The attacker is widely acknowledged as one of the most effective in West Asia, but was left on the bench by coach Ayman Al Hakeem for the game in Malacca, Malaysia, which ended 1-1 ahead of Tuesday's second leg in Sydney.
It proved to be a wise decision. When the stocky but skilful forward -- with the shorts he is almost a throwback to a certain Argentine No. 10 from the 1980s -- came on with 15 minutes remaining, things were looking bleak for his team.
Playing in their temporary home in Southeast Asia, the hosts were a goal down. With the second leg to take place at the same venue where Australia won the Asian title in 2015, the odds of Syria progressing to the final playoff against CONCAFAF's fourth-placed team in November were a lot longer than the shorts of the man who was their saviour.
Slotting in behind the main strikers, he produced an intelligent cameo that may just end up being the difference between a trip to Panama or Honduras next month, and watching the Socceroos do so.
He pulled the strings when the Aussies were tiring on a humid night and a heavy pitch. Creating space for himself and chances for others, most notably Omar Al Soma, his introduction meant that after an hour of Australian control, the Syrian revival hit top speed. The penalty that gave Al Soma the chance to level proceedings may have been soft, but the overall result based on Syria's second half performance, it was not undeserved.
There may have been relief in the away dressing room at the Hang Jebat Stadium when there was no place for the veteran in the starting eleven as the coach opted to go for two up front: Al Soma and the in-form Omar Khribin. After all, Al-Khatib has been an influential player wherever he has gone.
Making his name for his hometown club Al Karama of Homs at the start of the century, he went on to star in the Kuwaiti league for a number of years. Yet, unlike most West Asian talents, Al-Khatib ventured elsewhere. There have been some big names to play for Shanghai Shenhua in recent years, including Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Carlos Tevez. But none had the success, or the popularity, of the Syrian striker.
Arriving in early 2013 just after the departure of Drogba and Anelka, Al-Khatib found a club that was going through one of its regular traumatic periods. He was not a big-name signing, but soon won the hearts of fans at Shenhua.
The Hongkou faithful are among the most loyal in Asia. They will turn out in numbers at Pudong airport to welcome the latest world famous player to arrive with a blue scarf thrown around his neck, but they only take those to heart who give their all on the pitch. Al-Khatib did just that.
Hungry for the ball and hard to dispossess, he arrived unheralded, but started running and working from the start of the season until the last. He contributed so much more than 11 league goals. Here was a real team player who gave sweat, but also had the vision and technique to unlock the tightest defences.
There was a great deal more sadness as Al-Khatib left (and anger at the club for allowing the departure) than there was when more famous colleagues jetted out of the Middle Kingdom.
His return to the national team earlier in 2017 after an absence of five years added a tactical string to the coach's bow. Such experience has proven to be very useful indeed, as qualification has come to a climax. Al-Khatib provides a useful outlet for a defence that is accustomed to sitting back and inviting pressure and uses the ball well. A scoring record of very nearly one every other game is another major plus.
Anything could happen in Sydney. One benefit of the late introduction on Thursday is that that the forward will be fresher than most on Tuesday when his experience could be vital.
But he could start on the bench once again. If things are tighter than Al Khatib's shorts with the clock ticking, the Socceroos would not welcome the sight of one of the finest players to come out of West Asia this century entering the fray.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.