History suggests Socceroos fans set for nervy night

Matt Somerford Roar Rookie

By , Matt Somerford is a Roar Rookie

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    In the drawn-out procedure that has been Australia’s World Cup qualification campaign, there is some satisfaction to be gained from the fact that it will end, for better or worse, in the one place that the relatively young football nation has grown accustomed.

    Australia might not yet readily identify itself as a football nation – or even a soccer nation for that matter – but it can recount better than any other country the emotional trespass of a World Cup qualification playoff.

    The Socceroos have been involved in World Cup playoffs in five of the past seven qualification campaigns. Only neighbours New Zealand, for whom such games are a formality of their qualification, have been involved in more during that time.

    It has been the stage on which Australian football’s most recognisable moments have been played out and, for casual Aussie sports fans at least, its identity forged as it jostles for its place in a crowded sporting landscape.

    The wide-eyed hysteria that greeted John Aloisi’s clinching penalty against Uruguay in 2005 – which ended a 32-year wait to make the finals – remains one of the most visible memories in recent Australian sporting history.

    John Aloisi celebrates scoring his penalty against Uruguay

    AAP Image/Dean Lewins

    The bewilderment on Mark Bosnich’s face in 1997, after he had been unfathomably exposed by his defence to allow Khodadad Azizi to slip Iran through the back door to qualification, is equally as ingrained on the national sporting psyche.

    Four years earlier, Australia narrowly bowed out to an Argentina side that welcomed Diego Maradona back from a drugs ban, then saw him promptly suspended for the finals in the United States.

    Speaking about that tie a few years ago, Maradona suggested he and his teammates had been given prescribed enhancements on the morning of that second leg – which he curiously labelled ‘speedy coffee’ – as a fluke Gabriel Batistuta strike decided the tie 2-1.

    It was such near-misses that led to the throat-clearing delight of Sydney 12 years ago but – following Australia’s move into the Asian region – has not since been revisited.

    Until Wednesday night.

    The Socceroos’ bid to qualify for a fourth successive World Cup final with the cold comfort of a 0-0 result away in the first leg in Honduras.

    They will do so with a sense of the Prodigal Son’s return – certainly wastefulness in front of goal has been a key factor in their inability to secure direct qualification – and the cautioned step of a nation that knows full well the potential pitfalls that await.

    Most significant of those is the lack of an away goal from a first leg they dominated but, yet again, failed to turn into anything meaningful on the scoreboard. It has been Australia’s Achilles heel as they have relied too heavily on ageing striker Tim Cahill.

    While Australia’s belief will be fuelled by Honduras’ surprising lack of punch on their home pitch, they remain at the mercy of one error leading to a goal.

    Mark Milligan made such a mistake against Syria in the AFC playoff a month ago, before a nervy display followed that relied on Cahill’s goalscoring nous to draw Australia into this final round of qualification.

    The record goalscorer missed the first leg against Honduras after rolling his ankle during an A-League match the week previous and his potential return is one of many positives the Socceroos should take into the match.

    Australia should too benefit from being able to bring in fresh legs, after the taxing conditions of San Pedro Sula’s heavy pitch, while the state-of-the-art recovery comforts on the chartered return flight has been much discussed as Honduras laboured their way Down Under some 24 hours later.

    The visitors have a poor record away in recent years too – winning just one of their past nine World Cup qualifiers – while Australia have won 18 and drawn three of their past 21 World Cup qualification matches at home.

    If the numbers say Australia progresses in comfort then the memories of World Cup playoffs past will ensure no fan would dare be so complacent.

    Indeed, Italy’s shock exit will serve to remind of the hidden dangers of playoffs and the Socceroos only need to remember the two countries that qualified from their ‘Group of Death’ in Brazil four years ago – Holland and Chile – have already seen their hopes of making the finals ended.

    Getting to World Cup finals is tough work and, should Australia manage it, they will be in the elite company of 11 countries to have reached the past four finals.

    But the cut-throat nature of playoff ties means that any mistake is amplified – an irony after Australia’s long and winding road to this point – with those images of past playoff disasters just a creeping distance from memory.

    Australia’s favouritism to progress will also bestow an element of pressure not felt since the Iran match at the MCG two decades ago.

    As a guard against any lethargy that pressure might provoke among his players, boss Ange Postecoglou – whose own future has been a further distraction around the tie – has proclaimed that his side would go all out to win the match and that it was up to Honduras to keep pace.

    It is a bold and clear indication that Australia plans to run Honduras off their feet and make the most of their travel advantage and deeper squad. To score early and keep on pushing. A well-laid plan.

    It’s arguable, however, that well-laid plan in World Cup playoffs have not been Australia’s success point – unexpected first-half substitutions were instrumental in the Socceroos’ previous two home playoff wins – and if they are to progress, all indications are they will have to weather a few plot twists along the way.

    It is the least Australia fans expect.