San Pedro Sula: The Socceroos have escaped 'The Tomb' unscathed but remain no closer to Russia after being held to a goalless draw against Honduras at the Estadio Olimpico.
Australia were brave, at times inspirational but ultimately unlucky as they make the long trip from Central America back to Sydney with neither the win or vital away goal their performance deserved. If there was any victory, it was simply one for morale as the Socceroos outplayed "Los Catrachos" at one of the most intimidating venues in international football but were forced to settle for a result that gives Honduras a strong advantage heading into the second-leg in Australia.
They were controversially denied a penalty in the first half when the linesman ruled offside after a spot-kick was awarded. A horrendous playing field thwarted a guilt-edge chance. That goalkeeper Donis Escober"s performance was a candidate for the man of the match was most telling. For coach Ange Postecoglou, he goes back to Sydney with public opinion swinging closer towards his favour after his selection and tactics worked to effect.
Australia had to endure hot temperatures, sapping humidity, a paddock for a pitch and a hostile reception few Australians have ever experienced. When 40,000 fans began stamping their feet frenetically at kick-off, the concrete stands started vibrating. The floor was shaking but the nerves of Australia remained intact despite being rattled. Mat Ryan fluffed a clearance but went unpunished. The midfield's defensive shape was pried open from the start but the ever-calm defender Trent Sainsbury kept the Socceroos' secure in the opening minutes with a potentially goal-saving tackle on Carlos Lanza.
From then, the Socceroos regathered themselves as a five-man defence became resolute while their midfielders created chances of their own. Massimo Luongo would have broken the deadlock in the 11th minute if it wasn't for a superb save from Escober. They continued to sustained pressure on the hosts while battling every external disadvantage imaginable and midway through the half, the Socceroos silenced the hosts for the first time. Bailey Wright was brought down by Escober in an aerial challenge and Argentinian referee Nestor Pitana pointed to the spot.
The hush turned to outrage before relief swept the stadium when the linesman intervened, controversially ruling offside.
But, it didn't halt the Socceroos' and a swift counter-attack through the middle put Tomi Juric through on goal. One-on-one with Escober, Australia's centre-forward was certain to break the deadlock however a horrendous pitch played into the hands of the hosts - a slight bobble cushioned his shot agonisingly wide of goal.
If the climate and conditions didn't pose enough obstacles for Australia, they were forced to battle the bruising Honduran players. A relentless individually pressing game was designed to land the final blow to undo the Socceroos' composure before reaping the rewards with their swift and direct attack. The ever-dangerous Romell Quioto intelligently seized on the space between Wright and Risdon while the threat of Anthony 'Choco' Lozano was only dimmed by a vigilant, intelligent display from Sainsbury.
In an advanced role, Luongo a noticeably mature and industrious performance from the midfielder was one of his best in recent performances. He tested Escobar from the edge of the area in the 52 minute before setting up a close range header for Juric that was tipped over the bar.
For all their adversaries, it was the Socceroos tightening the screws on the contest. They brought an ominous hush over the the venue when they broke behind the defence on the hour-mark. A goal was certain as Risdon had two players standing in front of an open goal but his cross at the back past was played behind Aziz Behich and Jackson Irvine.
Australia was doing what so few have in the past in escaping the tight jaws of the infamous, oppressive ground - one that is proudly boasted by locals as the final resting place of several coaching jobs. As a Socceroos' win became an increasingly realistic prospect, the fans stepped-up their role. Horns became a weapon, targeted at key moments for the visitors. Jeers fell on the Australian defenders while the inspiring chant of "si se puede" [yes you can] roared around the stadium. When Honduras' answer to Tim Cahill - Carlo Costly - took off his bib to make his entrance off the bench, the hope behind that chant began to transpire into belief. It sparked an immediate response form Postecoglou who replied with the introduction of Tomi Rogic.
But it was Costly to make the first impact, stinging the palms of goalkeeper Ryan with a powerful shot from just inside the box before charging down the clearance shortly after only for the ricochet to bounce to safety.
The sapping conditions took their toll on Australia who went into survival mode in the last minutes of the game before being struck with the hollow feeling of a goalless draw that gives Honduras the upper hand, knowing a scored draw will book their ticket to Russia.