They made all of Australia’s nerves jangle until the second half but the Socceroos have got the job done, earning a 3-1 win over a determined Honduras outfit to book a place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The Socceroos’ very own Trojan warrior Mile Jedinak, he of the lustrous beard and bone-crushing tackles, scored two second-half goals from the penalty spot — or three if you include his free kick effort that deflected off Maynor Figueroa to open the scoring in the 54th minute.
The Honduran goal from Figueroa came with the last kick of the game when it meant nothing — the visitors’ spirit waned visibly from the 82nd minute when Bryan Acosta’s free kick from a dangerous position sailed well over the crossbar. That was the moment the crowd let out a victorious roar, knowing there was no chance of another Iran ’97-style stuff up.
There were tears and cheers as the Socceroos clinched the penultimate qualification spot for Russia 2018. (AP: Daniel Munoz)
The free-kick goal came after the best move of the match from Tom Rogic, who finally took the game by the scruff of the neck after only offering up small morsels of his talent to that point.
The Celtic attacking midfielder broke forward in his awkward-yet-graceful gangling way, slaloming past defenders before he was eventually chopped down on the edge of the area.
Instead of going high over the wall, Jedinak blasted the free kick low, and it deflected off the hip of Figueroa and into the net to unleash a cathartic roar from the Olympic Stadium crowd.
The next 18 minutes were the most hectic of the match, with Honduras now forced to attack and the Australians sensing a second goal in the offing.
It was always going to be the Socceroos who scored again, though, and when a dangerous attacking move resulted in a clear handball from Acosta, Jedinak stepped up and calmly slotted into the corner past a diving Escober.
The third goal came when newly introduced Robbie Kruse blitzed the Honduran defence with his fresh legs and was hacked down by Jerry Palacios.
The defender was booked, but probably should have been sent off, and the Australian captain once again scored from the spot before chugging down the sideline in a slightly more restrained version of John Aloisi’s 2005 victory sprint.
Honduras frustrates Socceroos in opening stanza
The Hondurans played the perfect game from their point of view in the first half. With only 28 per cent possession they managed to limit Australia’s opportunities to the one fluffed shot from Rogic and a couple of half chances.
The away side started wasting time early as well, with a desirous eye on the distant prospect of extra time and penalties. Whenever there was a chance to add an extra roll after a strong Australian tackle they did, whenever they could “mistakenly” place the ball on the wrong spot for a free kick they did.
They were the tactics of a street-smart side and they worked well. Australia could not find their main man Cahill, who was isolated up front, as the most creative players Mooy and Rogic were unable to get regular combinations going.
Australia’s best chance came in the 37th minute when Cahill, frustrated at being isolated up front, picked the ball up on the left wing and left two players for dead, before feeding Behic who teed up Rogic in a great position in the box. The midfielder did not hit the ball sweetly and it was an easy save for the keeper Donis Escober.
Meanwhile Honduras looked most dangerous when the rapid, strong and skilful Alberth Elis attacked down the right, but he was often a lone figure getting forward.
The Australians lifted in the second half, though, and whether it was due to exhaustion from Honduras or an upbeat in tempo from the hosts, the game began to stretch and Rogic took control.
The Socceroos are heading to their fourth straight World Cup, even if they took the long road to Russia.