Australia's poise in draw at Honduras helps pave way on road to Russia
Three quick thoughts from the scoreless draw between Honduras and Australia in the first leg of their World Cup intercontinental playoff.
1. Australia do the job in San Pedro Sula
Fans of the U.S. national team had to have been watching Australia on Friday evening and wondering: "Why can't our team play like that in Honduras?" Australia were very impressive in all phases, displaying a poise that few teams show in San Pedro Sula and it could well pave the way for a ticket to Russia 2018.
After the expected early pressure from Honduras, Australia settled very nicely into the match. Honduras were not able to penetrate as much via the wings as they usually do against opponents at home. The Aussies kept their cool under pressure. Trent Sainsbury was a rock in the middle of coach Ange Postecoglou's back three, and along with Matthew Jurman and Bailey Wright, they managed to disrupt, deflect or block the balls that Honduras tried to play.
The Aussies were also superior in midfield. Aaron Mooy ran the show, Mile Jedinak cleaned up when needed and the trio of Massimo Luongo, Aziz Behich and Tomi Juric produced some moments of magic that made for an uncomfortable evening for the Honduran defense.
Australia never really figured out the slow, sloppy surface at the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, and it made for some nervous moments for Aussie fans when the defense was in possession, but Australia impressively withstood it all. The only thing lacking was a goal.
2. Nerves hamper Honduras
Honduras' strategy was clear from the start: Play the long ball up to Ovidio Lanza, Anthony Lozano and Romell Quioto in hopes of getting behind the Australia defenders, specifically down the wings to Quioto on the left and Lanza down the right, then look for Lozano or someone else crashing the box. It made for some moments for the Catracho attack, but this was clearly not the Honduras that CONCACAF saw in the final four matches of the Hexagonal when they collected eight points out of 12.
Jorge Luis Pinto's side played tight, hesitant football. They were unable to keep possession and the balls they played into the Australia area were hopeful at best. Jorge Claros, Alex Lopez and Alfredo Mejia failed to connect in midfield, and it made life much easier for the Australian defense to ward off Honduras' wing play.
Pinto had exhausted all three changes before the final quarter hour, making three attacking changes, Michaell Chirinos, Mario Martinez and Carlo Costly for Lanza, Lopez and Lozano. Wily veteran Costly was an upgrade and perhaps convinced Pinto he should start next week, but there was never enough from the support staff to make the difference.
The Catrachos were also greatly unsettled by the refereeing of Daniele Orsato and it exacerbated their frustration. There were a good number of situations when Honduras were expecting the whistle to blow in their favor; in many CONCACAF contests, it would have come, but Orsato was having none of it. The Italian proved to be very forgiving, much to Honduras' dismay.
3. Changes coming in second leg
There had to have been moments during the 90 minutes when Pinto pined for the leadership of captain Maynor Figueroa in defense and the explosiveness of Alberth Elis in attack. Both were suspended for the first leg but will be back for next week's clash in Sydney and are sure to start.
In particular, Elis will be crucial to Honduras' hopes. Lanza was ineffective in place of the Houston Dynamo man, and lacks the pace and strength that Elis possesses. Honduras will need a goal, and the fresh-legged Elis will be the man best equipped to provide.
As for Australia, a speedy Mathew Leckie able to hit Honduras on the counter will be a plus for Postecoglou, but it is Tim Cahill's presence, assuming that he is fully recovered from an ankle injury, that would give the biggest boost. He may be 37 and in the twilight of his wonderful career, but he's still a match-winner, as he exhibited in the second leg of the AFC playoff against Syria with a brace in a 2-1 extra-time win.
With a half century of goals under his belt, and the lone player left from Australia's previous World Cup intercontinental playoff against Uruguay in 2005, the stage is set for Australia's greatest player ever to deliver one final time in front of the home fans.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .