Australia’s World Cup qualification hopes remain in the balance after a hardworking 0-0 draw in difficult conditions in Honduras. The Socceroos had the better of the first leg of the intercontinental play-off at San Pedro Sula’s Stadio Olímpico Metropolitano but proved unable to find the goal their superior performance deserved.
Tomi Juric came closest to breaking the deadlock with two good opportunities in a game of few clear cut chances undermined by an appalling pitch wholly unsuitable for such a high-stakes match. At the other end Mat Ryan was only called upon to make one save of note by an uninspiring Honduras outfit. Australian supporters can be confident of securing a positive result in Wednesday’s decisive second leg in Sydney.
“I thought it was fantastic, considering everything – the conditions, the home crowd behind them,” Ange Postecoglou said afterwards. “We’re just not getting our rewards and that’s the last thing missing from our game. Our general play’s great, we’re just missing a clinical edge, but overall I couldn’t be happier.”
Certain preconceptions of the Honduran experience proved accurate with a noisy crowd – bolstered by the incessant buzzing of vuvuzelas – and robust physical challenges contributing to a hostile atmosphere, especially during the game’s early stages. But Australia overcame these with little alarm and quickly asserted themselves as the dominant force in the contest.
The performances of both teams reflected Australia’s status 26 places above Honduras in the world rankings but by failing to convert this ascendancy into a goal the second leg looms as the latest in a long line of nerve-shredding World Cup qualification exercises.
Australia’s superiority began by Postecoglou winning the tactical battle against his counterpart Jorge Luis Pinto. The under-fire Australian coach sent out a more workmanlike iteration of his masterplan; his starting XI a tacit acknowledgment his side was unlikely to dominate possession to the extent they have become accustomed, nor likely to enjoy fluent ball movement on such an uncomfortable pitch.
The defence was as often a back five as it was a back three and Tomi Juric spent long periods isolated as the target man. In between, an industrious midfield diamond combined superbly. The energy and physicality of Massimo Luongo and Jackson Irvine allowed Australia to neutralise Honduras’ early aggression and once the game settled down Aaron Mooy was the game’s class act on the ball. Australia’s playmaker occupied more advanced positions than in recent internationals secure in the knowledge the returning Mile Jedinak was anchoring proceedings behind him.
To the deafening accompaniment of the vuvuzela orchestra in the stands, the game began at breakneck speed and required an early last-ditch tackle from Trent Sainsbury to rescue a failed offside trap. Thereafter the majority of play was on Australia’s terms.
Eleven minutes in Luongo’s trademark burst from midfield created a shooting opportunity that he directed too close to Donis Escober in the Honduras goal. Ten minutes later Italian referee Daniele Orsato pointed to the penalty spot after Escober’s clumsy challenge on Bailey Wright but the assistant referee’s flag was already up for an offside call against the Australian defender.
The Socceroos continued to press to great effect and the excellent Aziz Behich created a half-chance for Irvine before the only gilt-edged chance of the game fell the way of Juric. His own neat flick took him in behind the Honduras defence but bearing down on Escober, the striker dragged his left-footed shot horribly wide of the post. The bobbly pitch was culpable but it was a weak effort and the latest example of the inefficiency in front of goal that has handicapped Australia’s qualifying campaign.
The visitors continued to push early in the second half with Juric again spurning a headed opportunity after 54 minutes following lovely interplay down the right between Luongo and Josh Risdon. Five minutes later more good work from Risdon fashioned an opening but his pull-back from the byline evaded the gold shirts arriving into the six-yard box.
Honduras’ only chance was 82-minutes in the making after substitute Carlo Costly broke free in the inside-left channel but his fierce drive was palmed away by Ryan for a corner. Costly was one of three Honduran substitutes to be called upon midway through the second half as the dreadful playing surface magnified the impact of fatigue on the players.
Both sides looked exhausted long before the final whistle with neither team committing numbers to the sporadic attacking incursions. Australia continued to set the tempo into the dying stages but will leave comfortable with the 0-0 draw and confident of progressing on home soil.
“We’ll go hard,” Postecoglou said. “We’ll put the pedal down for 90 minutes. They’ll have to keep up with us.”
This article was written by Jonathan Howcroft, for theguardian.com on Friday 10th November 2017 23.48 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010