So much was played out about this game in the weeks leading up to kick-off that the match itself – already massive in any event – seemed to take on a surreal dimension.
Diplomatic tensions between Australia and Honduras were being frayed as media outlets traded barbs with the other; talk show hosts and newspaper editors on both sides of the Pacific Ocean showing ample disrespect to the other. It was a bunch of Kangaroos hopping around the Murder Capital of the World.
To be fair, where once this would have rattled Australia, now it suited them.
Australia’s worst performances on the world stage have come when they have either underestimated the opponent or the conditions, often both.
What the pre-game sideshow did was narrow the focus on the task at hand. There could be no doubt that the Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano was going to be a furnace of passion for the hosts.
It proved to be that, but Australia was well-prepared. This is legacy of the failed play-offs in 1997 and – more particular to this visit – the 2001 catastrophe of Montevideo. It is also the result of playing in Asia, where the ferocity of the crowds is often comparable, especially in the Middle East.
These emotional games are won and lost between the ears.
In the end, the Hondurans were hurt by the pre-game build up more than Australia. Local officials went out of their way to talk up how safe and friendly the country was and made sure the hospitality was faultless. Perhaps that removed a scurrilous yet critical edge.
The worst thing the locals did? Produce a pitch that was, by any measure, pathetic. But if it was a tactic, it was a dumb one. A quicker field might have helped Australia’s possession game but speed of movement is a Latin American speciality. And thus, their counter-attacks were easily cut down.
Australia played a methodical, thoughtful game. For the first time in a long-time, the back three worked brilliantly well under pressure. Mile Jedinak’s position has been questioned, but how the returning captain protected them so well.
That allowed Josh Risdon and Aziz Behich to make their presence felt further up the field, unlocking the potential of Ange Postecoglou’s system.
Maty Ryan was calm and solid, either with the ball at his feet or when pressed into action. Tomi Juric will be kicking himself that he didn’t score but he didn’t give the ball away and he didn’t stop working.
Critically, Jackson Irvine and Massimo Luongo didn’t wilt in the conditions. On the contrary, they worked hard and supported Aaron Mooy, who was strong, set-piece delivery aside.
Honduras, for their part, were poor. They seemed sketchy and disjointed; the midfield seldom linked to the attack. They have escaped with a draw. All things considered – and this must not be forgotten – it was probably a good result for them.
With one goal in Sydney on Wednesday, they are still an even-money chance of progressing. With two goals, they can almost book their spot in Russia.
Much of the commentary in Australia in the next 72 hours will be positive (as it was after the first leg in 1997) but thanks to the away goals rule, this tie still hangs on a knife’s edge.
Have no doubt that Los Catrachos will be a better outfit on Wednesday night. Nothing they did on Saturday morning would suggest they are a force, but they did defeat Mexico 3-2 just to get here, and if there’s any over-confidence in the Socceroos, it could be exposed.
Yes, on the weight of what we’ve seen so far, Australia are in the box seat.
Add Mark Milligan, Mat Leckie and Robbie Kruse, plus the possibility of Tim Cahill if required, and there’s no excuses not to get over the line.
Critically, however, Australia must keep their heads. They’ve done it once. Now it’s time to finish the job.