Jedi force powers Socceroos to Russia

Australia skipper Mile Jedinak (bearded) carrying team-mates Robbie Kruse and Tomi Juric, and his country's World Cup hopes after scoring against Honduras.
Australia skipper Mile Jedinak (bearded) carrying team-mates Robbie Kruse and Tomi Juric, and his country's World Cup hopes after scoring against Honduras.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Australia captain's hat-trick seals World Cup spot after gruelling 22-match qualifying campaign

2018 WORLD CUP PLAY-OFF

Australia 3

Honduras 1

(Australia win 3-1 on aggregate)

SYDNEY • He was sorely missed as Australia struggled to beat Syria over two legs of their World Cup fourth-round qualifier last month.

Yesterday, captain Mile Jedinak underlined his importance to the Socceroos, hitting a second-half hat-trick to seal a 3-1 aggregate intercontinental play-off victory over Honduras and fire his team into next year's World Cup Finals.

The Aston Villa midfielder's free kick went in off Henry Figueroa on 54 minutes and he buried two penalties in the space of 13 minutes before the visitors scrambled a late consolation through Alberth Elis.

The final whistle brought a massive roar from the 77,000 crowd at the Sydney Olympic Stadium as the Socceroos claimed the penultimate spot in Russia, following last week's goal-less draw in the first leg. The final berth will be decided between New Zealand and Peru in the Oceania-South America play-off this morning (Singapore time).

It will be Australia's fourth consecutive World Cup and fifth appearance overall. Qualification came after the 22nd game of a mammoth, 29-month campaign criss-crossing Asia, the Middle East and Central America.

An "overwhelmed" Ange Postecoglou described the campaign as the most difficult challenge of his managerial career.

NATIONAL SERVICE

When you're coaching your own nation, the burden of responsibility is even greater. We deserve to be there.

ANGE POSTECOGLOU, Australia coach, reflecting on getting his country to the World Cup.

He had came under fire for his switch to a three-man defence when the campaign faltered, and the criticism intensified when the Socceroos missed out on automatic qualification.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done these last four years," the 52-year-old told Fox Sports.

"Having to go to the World Cup with really a rookie squad, knowing we had to win the Asian Cup and then take a group of players on a journey they've pretty much never been on in terms of qualification.

"When you're coaching your own nation, the burden of responsibility is even greater.

"We deserve to be there, the players deserve to be there.

"They've done it the hard way but they got their rewards tonight. I'm just delighted for each and every one of them."

Jedinak is looking forward to a "big" 2018.

He told Fox Sports: "We set out on a task 21/2 years ago and we stuck to our guns. And we got here in the end. Now it's time to enjoy this moment and look forward to what will be a big 2018."

Chances were scarce in a cautious first half, with the best opening falling in the 37th minute to Celtic's Tom Rogic. The midfielder's shot was well saved by Donis Escober.

After the 33-year-old Jedinak broke the deadlock, Tim Cahill came close with a looping header which Escober scrambled away off the woodwork.

Cahill's night was over after 66 minutes, with the veteran replaced by striker Tomi Juric to a standing ovation from a home crowd that saluted his efforts to return to the pitch after a recent ankle injury.

The hosts tightened their grip when Bryan Acosta was adjudged to have handled inside the box. Jedinak rammed home the spot kick for his 17th goal in 73 international appearances and his men were two-up with 18 minutes left.

Substitute Robbie Kruse was then brought down as he closed in on goal and again the referee blew for a penalty, allowing Jedinak to claim his brace with an identical finish.

Elis gave the Honduran fans scant consolation deep in stoppage time, forcing the ball over the line after a goalmouth melee.

Postecoglou, who took over from the sacked German Holger Osieck in October 2013 on a five-year contract, has consistently failed to confirm or deny reports he's about to quit, after a report last month quoted a source close to the coach as saying he would walk away even if Australia qualified for Russia.

He again refused to clarify his position after the match.

"I'll sit down with the powers that be. Obviously it's important that the planning goes ahead," he said.

"The draw's (Dec 1) not too far away. It won't take too long. I'm going to make sure I enjoy this first."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2017, with the headline 'Jedi force powers Socceroos to Russia'. Print Edition | Subscribe