Two more World Cups since the Guus Hiddink era, a new confederation, new challenges and greater chance for development, the Socceroos became an instant force in Asian football. World Cups were supposed to be reached with regularity.

The World Cup cackles. It’s not so easy. Honduras are the new enemy.

Ange Postecoglou sits at a corporate function days before flying off, broadcaster Adam Peacock quizzes him, “How many times have you put ‘Honduras’ into the Google search bar?”

At this, every football fan in Australia suddenly puts themself in Ange’s position. Who are Honduras?

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There are very few strings linking the current Australian and Honduran teams.

The strongest is that between Tom Rogic and Honduras left-back Emilio Izaguirre who were Celtic teammates for four and a half years before Izaguirre departed last July. Head coach Jorge Luis Pinto was Ange Postecoglou’s first nemesis when he took over as Socceroos boss in 2013. At the time, Pinto was in charge of Costa Rica.

Pinto is Honduras’ strongest asset. He took Costa Rica to the 2014 World Cup and topped the Group of Death, trumping Uruguay, Italy and England. They made it to the quarter-finals and lost a thriller against the Netherlands in the infamous Tim Krul penalty shoot-out.

His Costa Rica side defeated Mexico and the USA in qualifiers in 2013 and his current Honduras team were undefeated in their latest meetings against the big CONCACAF nations – USA, Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico, defeating the latter. He knows how to get results.

Arguably their two best players are Houston Dynamo teammates Romell Quioto (pictured below) and Alberth Elis – both wingers. Quioto top scored for Honduras in qualifying with six goals and provided three assists in the last four games with his tricky play, close touch and pace down the left.

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Elis scored in three of Honduras’ last five games and was their second highest scorer in qualifying. The 21-year-old plays on the right and brings size and power to the final third.

The are few other high quality players in the Honduran squad. 34-year-old captain Maynor Figueroa was a Premier League defender of eight years, Izaguirre played for Celtic, hardened right-back Brayan Beckeles spent a season in Portugal’s top flight and forward Anthony “Choco” Lozano is currently with the Barcelona B team but was used only as a substitute in Honduras’ most recent fixtures.

Two of Alfredo Mejia, Brayan Acosta and Jorge Claros will occupy midfield. Claros was the player of the tournament in this year’s Copa Centroamerica, a minor competition for Central American nations, and is the most consistent passer from the middle. Alex Lopez is an adequate short passer and is a solid finisher and will play in attacking midfield.

Their Problems

Elis is out for the first leg with a yellow card suspension. He’s excelled on the right flank since taking over from injured Anderlecht winger Andy Najar but Pinto needs to decide on a replacement for the leg in San Pedro Sula.

Also suspended is Figueroa (pictured below). The centre-back is the most capped Honduran of all time at 142 international appearances and his physical presence and occasional-but-effective passing out from defence will be missed.

Johnny Palacios is likely to replace him and is a sufficient enough ball-playing defender, though none of their centre-halves hold a candle to Australia’s Trent Sainsbury when it comes to shrewd passing.

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It seems Eddie Hernandez will get the gig as starting striker after Pinto called up late to the squad after a cheekbone fracture. Hernandez was overlooked for every World Cup qualifier in 2017 until the two most recent games where he scored against Costa Rica and brought about a Mexico own goal in their last game.

Pinto used up to eight strikers through all competitions in 2017 and Hernandez is the latest cab off the rank, but the injury still creates doubt over whether he’ll start. If not, it could be Barcelona forward Lozano or 35-year-old Carlo Costly who gets a run.

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36-year-old goalkeeper Donis Escober is also under an injury cloud. Second-choice Luis Lopez is a definite out with injury which means third-string keeper Ricardo Canales may get the call if Escober can’t prove his fitness in time.

Where Honduras Will Win

Wingers. Quioto and Elis are the best players in the side but Elis being out for the first leg means a lot of traffic will go through Quioto.

Honduras goals never come from a methodical build up or a series of sharp, incisive passes. Most of the time they’re from quick flashes – a set piece, a diagonal from midfield or a Hail Mary long ball from defence – and normally on the counter. This is how they’ll try to play.

Honduras took the lead against Costa Rica in October through the creativity of two of their best players. A well-timed pass from Figueroa in defence was perfect for Quioto who shows a quick burst to set up a goal for Hernandez. Costa Rica defend with a back five, similar to Australia, and still conceded.

Below are a collection of Honduras goals and chances from other qualifiers. Evidently they’re most threatening down the sides, on the counter and when the ball is being thrown up by the defence or a central midfielder – primarily Claros.

In both instances at least one of Quioto and Elis are involved in the build-up and one of the two end up scoring.

Honduras are partial to a long-ranged shot. Their matches are sprinkled with hopeful strikes from unlikely distances, keeping the opposition alert. These frequently end in goal-kicks but players like Quioto and Alex Lopez are accurate from distance and force unsuspecting goalkeepers into making a save.

Where Honduras Will Lose

Honduras aren’t any better than Australia in technical ability. In fact, it could be argued that Australia are better but there’s little difference between the teams.

Where Honduras’ primary strength lies is also where their main weakness reside – out wide. The core unit of defenders are on the wrong side of 30 and are slow which makes defending quick assaults difficult. In most fixtures their lack of speed was exposed by either by raids down the flank or beating the offside trap with a through ball or lobbed pass to turn defenders around and face their own goal.

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Honduras also had issues defending against corners and set pieces which plays to Australia’s – and Tim Cahill’s – strengths. Australia boss Ange Postecoglou would be desperate to get Cahill fit knowing this.

Honduras’ two biggest weaknesses were exposed simultaneously by Costa Rica in last month’s qualifier with their late equaliser.

Costa Rica committed two players wide to target their fullbacks. Bryan Ruiz, 32, elegantly fools both defenders in quick succession to create a pocket of space for the cross and force Honduras to defend an aerial ball – they’d adequately dealt with only three of eight set pieces in this game.

Mexico’s opening goal in the very next game exhibits Honduras failing to defend at full-back and this time there are flaws on both the left and right side of defence. Left-back Ever Alvarado, who replaced Izaguirre from the previous fixture, is passed around far too easily while Beckeles on the right fails to account for Mexican striker Oribe Peralta. The striker is so free he had enough time to readjust himself after a heavy first touch – six yards out from goal, no less.

Honduras conceded numerous goals just like this right throughout qualifying, including in earlier games against Panama and Mexico.

What The Socceroos Need To Do To Win

Australia must ensure the defence is tight. The back three mustn’t splinter and the wide defenders have to be accountable for the damaging the wingers. When the time is right, Honduras can fracture a slack defence.

Ange will stick to his largely criticised three centre halves but the coach would be well-advised by his scouts to poke at Honduras’ defensive weaknesses.

One such approach to doing this is to lighten the load of the Socceroos wingbacks. Instead of playing a box formation in the middle, pull the two higher midfielders from behind the striker and into wide positions. This bolsters the flanks to defend against the likes of Quioto but also overwhelms a slow Honduras defence going the other way. In essence this changes the formation to the more conventional 3-4-3 setup currently being used by many Premier League teams.

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Honduras aren’t a physical team either. The holding midfielders don’t command the central third or actively looking win the ball back; a physical presence in Mile Jedinak could easily assert his authority to gain a psychological advantage. Aaron Mooy isn’t far from being world class in his ability to hold the ball and shouldn’t be troubled by the Hondurans dispossessing him.

Australia mustn’t be phased by Honduras’ occasional underhand tactics. They can be confrontational and like to engage in good old verbal row, while time wasting, feigning injuries and even pitch invaders were all “used” in prior qualifiers to eat time and disrupt momentum. Then again, this isn’t something the Socceroos aren’t used to.

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Football and Aussie rules commentator, writer and radio host/producer from Melbourne.