Honduras will be looking to take a significant step towards qualifying for its third consecutive FIFA World Cup when it hosts Australia on Friday in the CONCACAF vs. AFC playoff.
After reaching the 2010 and 2014 tournaments, Los Catrachos now face a two-legged playoff against the Socceroos for a place at next summer’s tournament in Russia.
Ange Postecoglou’s side has already come through one playoff, beating Syria over two legs to emerge from the Asian confederation. Now Honduras stands between the Socceroos and the World Cup.
Our friends at Football Whispers have previewed the game, looking at the key battles, where the contest will be won and lost and team news ahead of Friday’s clash in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
Key battle: Johnny Palacios vs. Tomi Juric
With Honduras captain Maynor Figueroa, 34, suspended for the first leg, it will fall to Johnny Palacios, younger brother of former Wigan Athletic and Tottenham Hotspur enforcer Wilson, to marshall the Honduran backline.
The 30-year-old boasts plenty of experience, having won 36 caps since making his debut in 2009 and turning out four times for his country at the Olympic games.
Palacios, who has spent his entire club career with Honduran club Olimpia, will be tasked with stopping Juric, who is likely to start if Tim Cahill is ruled out with an injury. Robbie Kruse, who might otherwise deputize, is definitely out.
Juric, who has eight goals in 30 appearances for the Socceroos, has already scored seven times in all competitions for Swiss club Luzern this season.
He led the line against Syria in the first leg of Australia’s AFC playoff in Cahill’s absence.
Potential match winners: Romell Quioto (Honduras) and Aaron Mooy (Australia)
With Houston Dynamo teammate Alberth Elis suspended for the first leg, the pressure will be on Quioto to step up and try to give Los Catrachos something to defend when they head to Sydney for the second leg.
The 26-year-old moved to Major League Soccer in December 2016 from Olimpia and scored seven times in 15 starts for his new club in his first season.
On the international scene, he is every bit as important, bagging six goals — including the winner in a 3-2 victory over Mexico — during qualification as Honduras finished fourth, ahead of the USA.
For the Socceroos, the onus will be on Huddersfield Town midfielder Aaron Mooy to supply the chances for Juric.
The former Manchester City playmaker shone on loan with the Terriers last season and made his move permanent following promotion.
Mooy has handled the step-up to the Premier League with ease and has been one of Huddersfield’s most important players, pulling the strings from deep and weighing in with two goals.
Honduras coach Jorge Luis Pinto has no particular loyalty to one system and has utilized a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 4-5-1 in recent games.
What is certain is the hosts will start with just one out-and-out centre-forward with Alex Lopez in support of whoever Pinto opts to lead the line.
Australia played in a 3-5-1-1 system for its AFC playoff against Syria with Cahill playing the No.9 role in the second leg. That can also be a 3-6-1 variation if extra defensive security is required.
If, as expected, Cahill misses out it should be Juric up front with Tom Rogic of Celtic just behind him.
Striker Eddie Hernandez, who has seven goals in 20 caps for Honduras, is facing a race against time to recover from a facial injury.
Meanwhile, former Wigan Athletic defender Figueroa is suspended and will miss the first leg — as is Elis.
For Australia, 37-year-old talisman Cahill is a doubt due to an ankle injury suffered while playing for Melbourne City last week.
Given the importance of these two games, the Australian medical department will do everything in its power to ensure the former Everton forward is fit.
However, Mark Milligan, Kruse and Mathew Leckie will all miss the first leg for the Socceroos.
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