Sydney (AFP) – Saudi Arabia dampened Australia’s homecoming with a 0-0 draw Thursday in a top-of-the-table 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 spoiled the party in a bad-tempered encounter played in teeming evening rain. 

Saudi Arabia could even have won it towards the end, having sat back for most of a drab and niggly contest.

At the halfway stage of this final round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Qatar, Saudi Arabia continue to set the pace in Group B with 13 points. Australia are clinging to second with 10.  

Japan are third but now just a point behind the Socceroos after a 1-0 victory at basement side Vietnam. Junya Ito scored the only goal.

Only the top two are guaranteed a ticket to the World Cup, with the team in third going into a playoff.

“Unfortunately we couldn’t get the three points to celebrate with the fans,” Australia forward Mathew Leckie said following the Saudi stalemate. 

“They defended really well. It was just one of those games the ball didn’t want to go in.”   

Australia were pumped up, having last played in front of their fans against Nepal in Canberra in October 2019, before being forced overseas when the country’s borders slammed shut because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The home side had more of the ball but were let down by sloppiness in attack, with neither side able to muster an attempt on target in the first half.

Australia were aggressive in the second half in a desperate bid to break the deadlock. They had numerous opportunities but were continually thwarted in the rain by Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Al Yami. 

Saudi Arabia appeared to be wilting and lost their composure with yellow cards to Abdulelah Alamri and Ali Albulayhi. 

But Australia’s momentum came to a halt when defender Harry Souttar, who is reportedly on the move to the English Premier League, was stretchered off with a knee injury.  

The away team looked the more likely to score towards the end, but were unable to snatch a late victory.     

– Son twice hits woodwork –

In Group A, in-form Wolves striker Hwang Hee-chan upstaged fellow Premier League star Son Heung-min with the only goal in South Korea’s 1-0 home win over the UAE.

Hwang scored in the 36th minute from the penalty spot to move South Korea, who dominated the match but missed numerous opportunities, a step closer to Qatar.

The game took place in front of more than 30,000 fans at Goyang Stadium, the largest crowd at a sports event in South Korea since the pandemic began.

Spurs ace Son, who hit the woodwork twice, said: “It’s not easy to get so many chances… I feel sorry for my teammates. It’s time for me to reflect (on his misses).

“I am so grateful for all the fans who have come all the way here in the cold weather,” he added.

“I wish we had played better for them.”

South Korea briefly topped Group A, but Iran clung to the summit after scoring twice in injury time for a thrilling 2-1 win in Lebanon.

There are two more matches in Asian qualifying later Thursday, before another round of games on Tuesday.