SYDNEY: Saudi Arabia's Fhad Mosaed Almuwallad and Australia's Aziz Behich fight for the ball during the World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifying football match at CommBank Stadium yesterday. – AFP

SYDNEY: Saudi Arabia dampened Australia's much-anticipated homecoming yesterday with a scoreless draw in a World Cup qualifying clash in Sydney - the Socceroos' first home game in more than two years. Defying a rowdy crowd of 23,314, the visitors spoilt the party in a bad-tempered arm-wrestle played in teeming rain. The Socceroos last played in front of their fans against Nepal in Canberra in October 2019 before being forced overseas when Australia's borders slammed shut because of the coronavirus. Saudi Arabia continue to set the pace in Group B with 13 points while Australia are clinging to second spot with 10.

"Unfortunately we couldn't get the three points to celebrate with the fans," Australia forward Mathew Leckie said. "They defended really well. It was just one of those games the ball didn't want to go in." With regional powerhouses Japan hot on their heels, both teams were desperate to move closer to a top-two finish and automatic qualification to next year's World Cup in Qatar.

The third-placed teams can still hope to make the cut via an inter-continental playoff. Having lost 2-1 to Japan last month in Saitama, a pumped-up Socceroos rattled an under-pressure Saudi Arabia amid a cauldron-like atmosphere. But the visitors settled and almost pinched an early lead, only for Salman Al-Faraj's shot from inside the box to be brilliantly blocked by defender Harry Souttar.

Surviving that scare, Australia held sway once more but were let down by sloppiness in attack. Australia were aggressive in the second half in a desperate bid to break the deadlock. They had numerous opportunities but were continually thwarted by goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Yami. Saudi Arabia appeared to be wilting and lost their composure with yellow cards to Abdulelah Alamri and Ali Hadi Albulayhi. But Australia's momentum came to a halt when Souttar, who is reportedly on the move to the English Premier League, was stretchered off with a knee injury.

Saudi Arabia looked the more likely to score towards the end and created several chances, but were unable to snatch a late victory. Even though they didn't break a 24-year drought against the Socceroos, Saudi Arabia kept their stranglehold on Group B. Saudi Arabia's road trip continues against Vietnam on Nov 16, while Australia play China in Sharjah on the same day. - AFP