SYDNEY (Reuters) - Captain Mile Jedinak led the way with a second-half hat-trick as Australia brushed aside Honduras 3-1 in the second leg of their intercontinental playoff on Wednesday to secure a place at next year’s World Cup finals.
The midfielder settled his compatriots’ nerves with a deflected free kick and two penalties to give Australia a comfortable aggregate victory after the 0-0 draw in the first leg last week.
Honduras were bidding for a third successive World Cup appearance but barely threatened the Australia goal until winger Alberth Elis scrambled the ball over the line in stoppage time.
It will be a fourth straight appearance at the World Cup finals, and fifth in total, for Asian champions Australia, who played 22 matches over 29 months to achieve their goal.
“It’s unreal,” Jedinak said. “We knew it was always going to be a difficult qualifying campaign but this makes it very, very special.
“It’s been a tough two-and-a-half years to get to this point but we did it. We’re very grateful we’re going to another World Cup.”
It remains to be seen if Ange Postecoglou will lead the squad to Russia but he was not about to spoil a party that started with a barrage of fireworks over Sydney harbor as soon as the final whistle sounded.
“Tonight is just about enjoying it ... what happens beyond here can be picked up tomorrow,” said the coach, who was reported by local media to be considering his position.
“I’ll sit down with the powers that be. Obviously it’s important that the planning goes ahead ... it won’t take too long. But I’m going to make sure I enjoy this first.”
As in San Pedro Sula last Friday, the Socceroos had the better of a forgettable first half without being able to forge a breakthrough.
Tim Cahill returned to the team from injury and started as a lone striker but his team mates were unable to present him with any clear-cut chances to notch up his 51st international goal.
Apart from a Tom Rogic shot straight at goalkeeper Donis Escober, Aaron Mooy’s set-piece deliveries provided Australia’s main threat but Honduras survived reasonably comfortably until the break.
The nervous wait for an opening goal ended seven minutes into the second half when Rogic finally put together a trademark mazy runs and was brought down on the edge of the penalty box.
Jedinak stepped up to fire his free kick wide of the wall and into the midriff of substitute defender Henry Figueroa, with the resulting deflection sending the ball back past the diving Escober into the net.
The 77,060 crowd had barely retaken their seats when Cahill almost doubled the lead with a header from the edge of the penalty area that landed on Escober’s crossbar.
The second goal did come in the 72nd minute, however, when a low cross grazed the hand and foot of Bryan Acosta inside the area and Jedinak’s powerful spot kick to the left proved too strong for Escober’s outstretched fingers.
Honduras were finally forced to chase the game but Australia pulled further clear when Jedinak put his second penalty into the opposite corner after Robbie Kruse had been brought down by Johnny Palacios five minutes from time.
“Australia were very strong and aggressive and put pressure on us and tried to neutralize us,” Honduras coach Jorge Luis Pinto said.
“The first half was more balanced and the hand ball (for the penalty) wasn’t intentional.”
Editing by Ed Osmond