Honduran fans in full voice after Honduras won their World Cup qualifier against Mexico last month.
By LAURENCE ROSEN
Australia is potentially 180 minutes away from booking a spot at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but its last step looms as the most treacherous yet.
The Socceroos face off against Central American opponents Honduras in an intercontinental two-legged playoff for a spot in Russia, with the first leg to be played in San Pedro Sula on November 10 and the second in Sydney on November 15.
Honduras finished fourth in their CONCACAF (North, Central American and Caribbean sector) round, pitting them against Australia, who beat Syria over two legs to advance to the final playoff as Asia’s fifth-placed side.
ESPN Mexico correspondent Tom Marshall has extensive experience covering Central American football and said the conditions Australia will face in San Pedro Sula will be vastly different to what they’re accustomed to.
“The Socceroos have plenty to worry about (during the away leg),” he said.
“There aren’t many places as difficult to visit as San Pedro Sula. It will be humid, the fans will be willing the Honduran team on, the grass is long, and the home team is not afraid to get stuck in.
“Hondurans arrive at the stadium a long while before kick-off and it becomes a bit of a carnival. You can definitely feel that it isn’t the safest place on earth, although there have been no serious problems when other CONCACAF teams have visited this cycle.”
The Honduran national team, nicknamed Los Catrachos, are ranked 74th in the world – 31 spots below Australia – and have reached the last two World Cups. While they have had a relatively successful period recently, they’ve found the 2018 qualifying cycle a lot more challenging.
Injured Socceroos star Tim Cahill is only an outside chance of making the Honduras match.
Honduras beat an already-qualified Mexico 3-2 at home on the final match day to sneak into a playoff spot, but for much of their CONCACAF campaign, Los Catrachos looked likely to miss out altogether.
“It wasn’t a great campaign from Honduras and for a long time it looked as though (coach) Pinto was going to fail (to qualify his side),” Marshall said.
“A generational shift from the last World Cup made for uneasy performances, with the likes of Noel Valladares, Carlo Costly and Wilson Palacios having made way for younger and inexperienced players.
“The key for Honduras was earning two wins and two draws from its last four games of the Hexagonal (round). Los Catrachos made the playoff spot the hard way, with an away win in Trinidad and Tobago, a point at home against the USA, a draw in Costa Rica and a victory over a previously undefeated Mexico.”
Honduras are an unknown quantity for fans in Australia, but according to Marshall, they are a well-drilled team who will pose a significant challenge for the Socceroos.
“Honduras is a really tough team that doesn’t play particularly attractive football,” Marshall said.
“They can be difficult to break down, are physical and have a shrewd tactician on the bench in Jorge Luis Pinto.
“Alberth Elis and Rommel Quioto are the key players in the attacking sense and provide a legitimate threat from the wings.
“This isn’t the most talented group of players Honduras has had, but they will come into the Australia playoff with a plan and Pinto has already stated he knows a lot about the opposition.”
Kick-off in San Pedro Sula on November 10 (November 11 in Australia) is scheduled for 4pm, which Marshall warned would favour Honduras and their style of football. The Honduran FA tried to move kick-off to 3.30pm just days before the first leg, although that request was denied by FIFA.
Alberth Elis is a key player for Honduras.
“The afternoon kick-off will be an added factor working against Australia,” he said.
“After the long trip to Honduras, it’ll be a real test. Most teams go to San Pedro Sula and try to conserve energy early, but it is a delicate balancing act with so much at stake.
“Mexico visibly wilted in the second half in its recent loss in Honduras and that game was played in the evening. It’s a real mental and physical challenge.”
Marshall said that he expected Australia to overcome Honduras and qualify for their fourth consecutive World Cup finals but warned things could rapidly turn sour in the decisive first leg if they weren’t careful.
“Australia should have enough to make the World Cup, but (Honduras’ home ground) the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano is the kind of place where things can go very wrong, very quickly,” he said.
“The Socceroos will need to manage the environment and roll with the inevitable hitches in logistics. If Australia can manage a one-goal loss at worse than you’d put them as the favourite to reach Russia 2018.”