The sound billowing out of the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano was frightening. It was the call of battle approaching, a horde swaying to the clangour of the horns of conflict, roaring and jawing, boring through the resolve of their foes.
There was no true away leg in the last playoff against Syria, with Damascus hardly expected to pay mind to hosting a World Cup qualifier under their current political circumstances. The group stage, a round-robin of sorts, ended at home for the Socceroos; a deflating, fumbling victory over Thailand that feels a rather long time ago now.
This sort of excursion into partisan enemy territory is something the Roos have not fully experienced in this slog of a qualification campaign, and their hosts’ reputation was, to put it frankly, not for indulging in the beautiful game. The pitch was shaggy and slow, the match time designed to take advantage of the day’s heat and humidity, an oppressive atmosphere compounded by that furious wall of noise.
Ange Postecoglou picked a brawny team packed with broad shoulders and powerful motors. Mile Jedinak and Bailey Wright were inserted into the midfield and defence, and Jackson Irvine, the athlete, was preferred over Tom Rogic in attack, an indictment, really, of Rogic’s unwanted tendency to fade from view under duress.
Massimo Luongo was in midfield, too, as a snappy, active presence, and the two wing-backs, Josh Risdon and Aziz Behich, were to essentially form a back five without the ball. This was the formation we wanted to see away against Japan; a defensive team, and unashamed of it, ready to grit their teeth, flex their muscles and thrash out a clean sheet.
Immediately it was clear playing on this surface would be like trying to kick a ping-pong ball over lush shag-pile carpet. The turf yielded horribly underfoot, and huge loamy wodges were sent flying after every skirmish, the Somme in San Pedro Sula, a fitting battleground for an ugly affray.
Honduras threatened early, with the Australian centre backs having to clear the ball deep in their own penalty area. Henry Figueroa scythed through Jackson Irvine from behind in midfield, and the crowd roared with approval. A little later, Luongo tottered into the Honduran box and shot, drawing a fine save. The game, bedraggled and lurching, was very open.
The first time Mat Ryan attempted to play out from the back, Trent Sainsbury nearly lost possession, stumbling over the ball, feet bogged in the pitch. The sequence ended in a Honduran throw in Australia’s half; this was not the time nor the place for cute passing in the defensive third, with the Hondurans eager to press aggressively.
The Roos were set up to disrupt the Hondurans passing as well, with Irvine and Luongo clearly tasked with pressing the Honduran defence high up the pitch, Irvine in particular. Wholly unsuited to terrestrial passing, the pitch compelled Australia to launch at least two free kicks into the box, free kicks that would normally have been taken quickly and short.
Behich was making a number of potent sojourns down the left, combining with Aaron Mooy, beating his man and crossing. His exclusion in favour of Brad Smith over the last few months has been baffling. Set up by Behich, Irvine spanked a volleyed shot high and wide.
Mooy’s presence was vital in the Socceroos midfield. Surrounded by so many dynamic runners, it was Mooy’s poise and technique on the ball – expected to function in spite of the conditions – that Australia were relying on.
Tomi Juric wasted a chance after 35 minutes, having wriggled through, clear on goal. A horrid bobble just before striking the ball meant he skewed his shot wide. Ange spun around in the technical area, his face contorted with frustration. Having rattled the Australians early, Honduras were now creating almost nothing in attack, hoping perhaps for a mistake to prey on. Juric’s ended up being the outstanding chance of the half for either team. It was scoreless at the break.
Matt Jurman was booked within seconds of the second half commencing. Sainsbury followed him into the book a minute later. The grisly contest began again, with neither team passing freely or coherently. Luongo, so sprightly and encouraging, ran and shot from distance. Luongo then sent through Risdon a minute or so later, and he crossed for Juric.
The striker’s header was tipped over by keeper Donis Escober. Australia were pushing, cautiously, for a breakthrough. Honduras responded with a stern set piece, a swooping free kick that the Roos’ airborne squadron dealt with.
The atmosphere swelled when Michaell Chirinos, a minute, quicksilver winger, was brought on as a substitute. Another promising Australian incursion into the Honduran box ended with the ball bobbling across the face of goal, tracing a path exactly between the two Socceroos ready and waiting to tap home. Chirinos then scampered away on the counter but shot wide.
Missed chances, gaps widening for an obdurate opponent on the counter; was this to be the old, awful story for Australia, the one we’ve seen too often over the past few months? How quickly would the Australian vigour sap away, how ragged would the passing become, as the game creaked past the hour mark?
A heavy touch from Risdon and a poor pass from Luongo gave some indication, with little movement on the Australian bench. Meanwhile, Honduras had made all three of their changes, with Carlos Costly, a towering striker and national team veteran, the final substitute to enter. Tom Rogic was then brought on for Jackson Irvine. Irvine had put in a Herculean shift, harrying and hassling, but his industry was now replaced by Rogic’s artistry.
The Hondurans were now visibly fading, with their attacking scheme almost entirely based on pumping long, hopeful balls out of defence and their defensive approach propped up by frequent fouling. Mooy overhit a free kick, and Jedinak spooned a routine pass over the sideline; the match was degenerating, with the goalless scoreline still favouring Australia. The job was nonetheless far from done, as Costly romped away on the break, forcing a save from Ryan.
Milos Degenek was brought on for Risdon, a rare defensive substitution from Postecoglou. The match had now entered the grating final throes, a stage in which it would be vital Australia maintain concentration. Luongo then fouled Chirinos in a dangerous position, deep in Australia’s defensive half. A perilous free kick came to nothing, Australia bailed out by a Honduran foul. Nikita Rukavytsya was sent on for Juric, an injection of pace into a weary game if nothing else.
Aaron Mooy sent another free kick spiralling over the byline, a wasted opportunity as the match wound down. The final whistle went and the Australian players’ shoulders slumped, more in relief that this mealy slog was over than in disappointment it had ended in parity. A clean sheet earned under atrocious conditions away from home. Australia can be proud of their defensive stolidity in San Pedro Sula, effectively shutting down Honduras on their own boggy patch.
Jedinak made a mockery of calls – my own included – for his exclusion. Sainsbury and the defence were largely faultless save for some shaky moments from Josh Risdon. Luongo and Mooy performed as well as could have been expected. Juric’s profligacy was excusable, just.
The home leg won’t be played on a pudding pitch, and will – that’s right, will – be contested in front of an impassioned, capacity green and gold crowd. Cautious confidence, with Russia in sight.