Less than three years ago, the Socceroos walked off ANZ Stadium as the champions of Asia. Last night, Australia walked off the same venue and confirmed their place as the fifth-best team in Asia.
Indeed, over 180 minutes, nothing could separate fifth from sixth. Ultimately, the match needed a red card and extra time to split the teams.
That may seem like a crude, cold comparison but it is grounded in as much fact as the fact itself is grounding.
This 180 minutes did not parlay into confirmation that Australia is World Cup-bound. There is a mountain of work to be done. Don’t book in for the Russian lessons just yet.
Perhaps this two-legged play-off, more than any other single match during the qualification period, has finally provided a true indication of where the Socceroos sit in pecking order of Asian football.
Let there be no more doubt about how difficult this continent is. Hardcore football fans get it – but it’s time for the casual Australian sports fan to realise this.
These two games must tip the balance. World Cup qualification is not a right; it’s a glorious privilege, afforded to a precious few and coveted by the rest. As it stands, we are still in the latter.
So had Omar Al Soma’s free-kick gone a centimetre to the left with a minute to play, it would have been Dos vidaniya to Russia 2018.
Alas, it went wide. The luck was finally on Australia’s side. There was no repeat of the dreaded 2-2 of 20 years back. Just 2-1 after extra time, like three years back.
Added to qualification-sealing triumphs in 2005 (Uruguay), 2009 (Uzbekistan) and 2013 (Iraq) and it’s quite clear: ANZ Stadium is where the good karma resides for a team historically devoid of it.
The overwhelming feeling for those inside the stadium was momentary ecstasy, followed by the sinking realisation: Australia had just dodged a serious bullet and even bigger one might be coming.
Yes, the Socceroos dominated possession but this is not the first time such a thing has happened without reward. You only have to look at last month’s game against Thailand. We still haven’t found the Gustav Gun capable of destroying the bus parked in our way.
Thank goodness Australia still has that stick of dynamite: Cahill. He’s not had a great run for the national team but when the pressure was on, he delivered. First when the Socceroos were caught with their pants down and again when the whole thing was up for grabs.
Until last night, he was not assured of going to Russia if Australia qualified. He hadn’t scored for the national team in 2017 and his minutes were dwindling. But that’s what happens when you doubt him. He’s been aching to reach the 100 game-50 goal quinella and what a time to do it.
Ange Postecoglou will be totally, utterly relieved. To bow out at the first play-off would have been catastrophic for his legacy; nobody knows that more than him. Now he’s in a situation he won’t mind. Backs to the wall and all hands to the pump.
Panama’s team is vastly experienced – 11 players have 65 caps or more, and they’ve been three-time Gold Cup podium-finishers since 2005 – while Honduras, traditionally a stronger nation, hasn’t been beaten in their past four qualifiers (leading into the last round).
Dice it any way you like, but both teams are a step up from Syria (ranked 75th), despite their relatively similar rankings (Panama is 60th, Honduras is 74th).
Postecoglou will surely note that Australia dominated three-quarters of the whole play-off against Syria and will feel they thoroughly deserved to advance on the balance of play. He’d be right, too.
But it’s equally worth noting that either Central American nation will be just as happy to park the bus in the Australian leg, with even better counter-attacks in their arsenal. And they’ll be far more confident about putting Australia under all sorts of pressure at home. And not just on the pitch.
Feels tough? Perhaps, but it’s a World Cup we’re talking about. This brutal qualification route is no less – and no more – than the fifth-best Asian team deserves.