SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (AP) — Honduras held Asian Cup champion Australia to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of their intercontinental World Cup playoff, leaving a spot at Russia still very much at stake for both teams in next week’s return leg in Sydney.
The Australians dominated the match and created the better scoring opportunities but Honduras defended stubbornly at home and neither side was able to break the stalemate in a tense but scrappy opening leg at the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano on Friday.
Australian striker Tomi Juric missed two clear-cut chances to score — one in each half — and the Socceroos were left confused after Italian referee Daniele Orsato initially awarded them a penalty only to change his mind after consulting with an assistant.
Despite the missed opportunities, Australia head coach Ange Postecoglou said he was thrilled with his team’s overall performance and confident of winning the return leg on home soil.
“We’re just missing that clinical edge, but overall I couldn’t be happier,” Postecoglou said in a post-match interview on Australia’s Fox Sports. “I thought we were really solid defensively. On a difficult pitch we held our line really well apart from that chance at the end.’’
Postecoglou said several key players who missed the first leg would be available for Wednesday’s second match at Sydney’s Olympic stadium.
“We’ve got some fresh legs, we’ll go hard, we’ll put the pedal down and go as hard as we can,” he said. Honduras “will find it hard to keep up with us.”
Honduras, which pipped the United States for fourth spot in the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) qualifying to book a spot in the intercontinental playoff, failed to take advantage of its home-ground advantage.
With the pitch breaking up and making it difficult for players to keep their footing, Los Catrachos spent most of the match defending, although they did create one good chance against the run of play late when Carlo Costly came off the bench.
The veteran striker broke free and forced Australian goalkeeper Mat Ryan to pull off a sharp save.
Honduras manager Jorge Luis Pinto was heartened by the fact his side was able to stop the Australians from scoring and expected his team to be stronger for the second leg with captain Maynor Figueroa and forward Alberth Ellis both returning from suspension.
“Things did not go today as we wished,” Pinto said through a translator. “But we got a draw and they (Australia) did not score.”
The Socceroos, who beat Syria over two-legs to finish fifth in the Asian qualifying section, were left to rue a string of missed opportunities and the absence of several key players to suspension and injury, including striker Tim Cahill, Australia’s all-time leading scorer.
Juric fired wide of the target midway through the first half when he had only the Honduran goalkeeper Donis Escobar to beat, then the center-forward let another golden opportunity go begging early in the second term when he directed Josh Risdon’s perfectly-weighted cross straight at Escobar from close-range, who tipped it over the bar.
“We must take it as a positive,” Socceroos skipper Mile Jedinak said. “In any other game, I think we win the game, we had the chances… but we take a lot of heart from it.
“In this World Cup qualifying campaign, we’ve had to deal with that a lot and tonight was no different. We must now focus on recovery and getting back to our home crowd.”
Australia, bidding to qualify for the World Cup finals for the fourth straight time, has spared no expense in its bid to get to Russia, booking a private charter flight to get the players back to Sydney as soon as possible.
Honduras is aiming to make a third straight appearance at the sport’s marquee tournament.