Socceroos vs Honduras
IT will be a case of agony or ecstasy for Australian football fans tonight when the Socceroos and Honduras play off for a spot at the World Cup in Russia next year.
Following a 0-0 draw in San Pedro Sula on Saturday, Ange Postecoglou's team must win in Sydney to ensure it's one of the 32 countries on hand to fight for the sport's most prestigious trophy in 2018.
Another 0-0 scoreline after 90 minutes will send the match into extra time, but a draw with any goals scored (1-1, 2-2 etc) will put Honduras through on away goals.
Kick-off is scheduled for 8pm AEDT.
Both sides traded free kicks inside the opening two minutes. First Mathew Leckie was pinged for a late challenge on Maynor Figueroa outside the box then Honduran striker Romell Quioto controlled the ball with his hand.
The referee dished out the first yellow card of the match when he didn't appreciate Matt Jurman's ugly challenge.
Honduras has started much better than it did in the first leg on Saturday, actually managing to string some passes together at the back.
But the Socceroos look the classier outfit in the opening stages, the ball remaining in the visitors' half for the most part.
An early confrontation between left wing-back Aziz Behich and Alberth Elis after the Aussie believed his opponent took a dive provided an early spark before Tom Rogic tried to surged through the middle of the Honduran defence and into the area only for a heavy touch and some close attention from the men in blue and white to end his run.
Tim Cahill hugged Trent Sainsbury, using him as a bodyguard as he awaited Aaron Mooy's delivery from a free kick on the left side after 13 minutes, but he took an air swing before goalkeeper Donis Escober pulled off a blinder to keep the ball out of the net. Escober was unsighted as the ball swung in and Cahill's miss would have made life more difficult, but he was up to the task.
Honduran defender Johnny Palacios was lucky to escape further sanction when he brought Rogic down with a cynical foul that prevented the Aussie from scooting clear.
An Australian attacking raid after 17 minutes was incorrectly cut short when Rogic released Behich down the left. The referee's assistant raised his flag for offside but replays showed Behich was clearly in a position to keep playing.
Figueroa went into the book not long after for chopping Cahill from behind but the home side was unable to take advantage of yet another free kick. The Honduras defence scrambled well to shut Mooy down when he took too long to pull the trigger inside the box after picking up the scraps.
Elis went down after copping an accidental forearm from Mile Jedinak when the pair went up for a header but Australia dealt well with a sharp one-two from Honduras on the edge of the box from the resulting free kick.
Honduras coach Luis Pinto blew up on the sideline when he believed Jedinak fouled Elis again as the two collided once more, preventing Elis from latching onto the return pass of his give-and-go.
'It's just not good enough'
The problem that has plagued the Socceroos' entire qualifying campaign is looming as the biggest barrier to World Cup qualification.
Australia just hasn't been able to finish in front of goal. From the 40-plus shots taken against Thailand at home in September for only two goals to the missed chances in the first leg against Honduras, an inability to take chances has haunted Ange Postecoglou's team.
Nobody doubts Australia was the better side in San Pedro Sula and plenty have said a similar performance will see the home side coast towards Russia. But if the men in gold are as inaccurate as they were on Saturday, then a World Cup berth is no certainty.
Former Socceroo Andy Harper, who is commentating the match for Fox Sports, laid that brutal reality out in no uncertain terms.
"Statistically it's taking Australia 10 efforts at the target for each goal they score and it's just not good enough at this level," Harper said in the pre-game coverage.
"If you're Ange Postecoglou in the pre-game speech you're evoking the legendary words of Harry 'Breaker' Morant - 'Shoot straight you bastards.'"
Starting XI finalised
Ange Postecoglou has made four changes to the 11 that took the field for kick-off in Saturday's first leg.
Tim Cahill will start tonight's qualifier as the lone striker, taking Tomi Juric's spot. Tom Rogic also starts in an attacking position behind Cahill while Mark Milligan comes in to partner Mile Jedinak as another anchor in central midfield.
The reshuffle in the middle of the park means there's no room for Massimo Luongo, who was Australia's best in San Pedro Sula.
The final change sees Mathew Leckie return from suspension, taking his place on the right wing in place of Josh Risdon.
'You don't deserve to be there'
If the Socceroos don't qualify for the World Cup they will have nobody to blame but themselves.
Next year's showpiece tournament will be without footballing powerhouses Italy and the Netherlands after both countries were shockingly knocked out in the qualifying stages, while America will also be watching from afar after choking to completely bungle its chance at flying to Russia.
And if Australia follows suit tonight, former Socceroos goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer will have little sympathy. Speaking about the big names who failed to make the cut, the international veteran said nobody has a "divine right" to appear the prestigious tournament.
"There's no divine right to be at the World Cup. If you don't do what you need to do to qualify, then you don't deserve to be there," Schwarzer told Sportsday.
But he doesn't believe the Aussies will suffer the same fate as those countries above, saying their performance in the first leg bodes well for what will go down against Honduras tonight.
"I think the Socceroos will win. They will take a huge amount of confidence from the first game against Honduras," Schwarzer said.
Bosnich has his say on Cahill, Postecoglou
Australian football great Mark Bosnich has weighed in on what role Tim Cahill should play tonight and what's in store for coach Ange Postecoglou.
Cahill remained on the bench for the first leg in San Pedro Sula after suffering an ankle injury playing for A-League club Melbourne City, and his fitness remains a talking point heading into tonight's clash.
Bosnich said if fit, Cahill must start.
"If he's fit he's got to start," Bosnich told SEN's The Run Home. "No disrespect to any other players but I'm sure if he was fit and playing on Saturday we'd be carrying a one goal if not a two-goal lead into this occasion.
"He's been absolutely phenomenal during this qualifying campaign. I don't think he's been used as much as he should have been but that doesn't matter.
"He's got a massive role to play tonight and I believe he should and he will start."
Cahill's immediate future is a hot topic and Postecoglou's rein as coach will also draw questions regardless of tonight's result. Reports suggested the Socceroos mentor would step down following the two-leg tie against Honduras but in a recent profile on the ABC's Australian Story, he implied he'd stay on if his charges qualified for Russia 2018.
Bosnich said he believes Postecoglou will remain in charge if Australia qualifies, but has no problem with him quitting.
"I'm sure I saw him say when the World Cup journey ends, my journey ends," Bosnich said. "I'm taking from that if we qualify he may stay.
"If we do qualify he's done his job so if he wants to leave he can leave.
"The most important thing is to qualify the football team. There's no person in this game, in Australia especially, that's bigger than the code itself.
"If he qualifies us, thankyou very much, all the very best, we understand that he wants to leave - he can go.
"But from that interview that he did ... he said when the World Cup journey ends, my journey ends."
Possible Aussie catastrophe on the cards
Win and all is hunky dory, but fail to qualify for the World Cup and Australian football faces a truckload of problems not just on the pitch but off it too.
Football Federation Australia (FFA) is already dealing with financial struggles and is under siege from furious A-League clubs over a drawn-out congress spat set to boil over in the coming weeks, and a loss tonight would only add more misery to a dicey situation.
Commentator Simon Hill has laid bare just how catastrophic a state the round ball game could find itself in Down Under, saying it could be without a national team coach, without a board, without a chairman and without millions of dollars to go without a World Cup berth should Honduras prevail tonight.
"We've got this AGM (Annual General Meeting) looming at the end of the month, and I know this is not on the pitch stuff but it is equally important," Hill told SEN Afternoons.
"Should they fail to qualify for Russia, we could be in the scenario where we have no national team coach, we're not going to the World Cup and we could be without a board and without a chairman come December 1.
"That's worst case scenario obviously, but it is important, not the least financially as well. There is probably $12-$15 million at stake here for qualification.
"(A loss) would be a retrograde step and one that we obviously don't want, so let's hope it doesn't eventuate."
Anthem flashpoint looms
Those who were at ANZ Stadium in 2005 when Australia last had a World Cup playoff of this magnitude against Uruguay, and those who watched on TV, will remember the cacophony of boos that drowned out the visitors' national anthem.
Jeers rang out around the stadium to let Uruguay know Australia wasn't going to take a backward step.
The reaction was driven primarily by the harsh treatment of the Socceroos in Montevideo ahead of the first leg and also four years prior. Players' bags were intentionally held at the airport and locals were paid to spit in the visitors' faces and hurl abuse at them.
Speaking to broadcaster Mark Howard in an episode of his latest podcast series The Moment - a six part documentary series looking at the biggest moments in Australian sport - former stars Tony Vidmar and Mark Bresciano said hearing those boos was music to the Socceroos' ears.
"That definitely I won't forget. As soon as the national anthem from Uruguay was on just the 80,000 boos and jeers and whistles," Vidmar said. "I was like, 'Holy f***, this is good.'
"People can say it's un-Australian but for me it was Australian because we know what happened to us, the treatment that we got, and now it was time for us to pay them back in that regard."
Bresciano said the bad blood between the countries meant he had no sympathy for the Uruguayans.
"That was the best moment of my footballing career," he said. "And I think this was the first time where we all stood up as a nation and said, 'No, the way you treated us over there, we'll treat you the same down here,' and well done to them (the fans)."
The animosity between Australia and Honduras doesn't have the same venom - but it's still there. The central American country was angry Australian media cracked jokes at its social problems and San Pedro Sula's local paper led with a front page before the first leg on Saturday calling the Aussies "kangaroos" with a "simple" game plan.
Ange Postecoglou returned fire after the match, calling the sledges "disrespectful". And just yesterday Honduras coach Luis Pinto accused Australia of "embarrassing football espionage", believing a drone flying overhead of his side's training session was a desperate ploy by the hosts to gain an advantage.
So will this be enough to fuel a scene reminiscent of what we saw 12 years ago? Perhaps Vidmar and Bresciano wouldn't mind a replay of that famous night, but Tim Cahill hopes nothing sours the away side's anthem, especially after the Honduran locals were so respectful of the Australian anthem on Saturday.
"Credit to the Hondurans, especially with the national anthem," Cahill said on Monday. "It was silent. It was respectful.
"It really touched a lot of us. I was speaking to Tommy (Rogic) on the bench, saying how nice that was.
"It definitely wasn't what it was portrayed to be. I hope they have the same experience we had there and we can repay the respects of what their country did for us."