A policeman stands guard as the Socceroos train.
A policeman stands guard as the Socceroos train.

Legends warn Roos over tactics: ‘It's life or death’

SUSPENDED players, yellow card tightropes, a captain on the mend, playing in a new environment before a quick turnaround to a country on the other side of the planet, and now, the most important ankle in the country is being iced and treated 24/7 in a bid to be ready.

This clash against Honduras is a football furnace like the Australian public have not seen for over a decade.

If 90 minutes is hard enough to prepare for tactically, or to negotiate logistically in a World Cup qualifying scenario, then how do you prepare for this extraordinary contest, over potentially 210 minutes, across two sides of the globe in the space of five days, with so many variables and uncontrollables - all with a World Cup spot as the prize?

"They are games of football but the pressure and consequences are completely different," explains Central Coast Mariners coach Paul Okon, who captained the Socceroos in their bid to make the 2002 finals in South Korea and Japan.

Paul Okon and Uruguay’s Gonzalas De Los Santos in 2001.
Paul Okon and Uruguay’s Gonzalas De Los Santos in 2001.

"These are games where if you make one mistake, it can cost you the result - which is obviously over 180 minutes - that is, qualification."

Tony Vidmar, who experienced four World Cup campaigns, was equally as blunt: you can't ignore the stakes when you're in the middle of playing for them. A play-off does not have the luxury of a league table format.

"It is very different," he told foxsports.com.au.

"You're going through the qualifying stages in group phase, you're doing it over a two-and-a-half year period. Now it comes to the stage where it's all or nothing."

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Uruguay striker Alvaro Recoba does battle with Tony Vidmar in a 2001 World Cup play-off clash.
Uruguay striker Alvaro Recoba does battle with Tony Vidmar in a 2001 World Cup play-off clash.

Ange Postecoglou has never been one to waver from his values or his ethos but this is a series like none other. While the side will have learnt from the Syria tie, about how to mange a play-off through 180 minutes, just ask All Whites fans about the importance of a first leg in North and Central America.

Four years ago, they brought a 5-1 deficit home to Wellington from Mexico City.

"(Guus) Hiddink said in 2005: even if we lose by a goal, we're still in a good position, going down 1-0 is not going to be a bad result, these guys can play," Vidmar recalled.

"If that means setting it up for the second leg, you take that. You don't want to have to start chasing. That makes it more difficult. I'm confident enough they'll get the result - whatever it is - to set themselves up for Sydney."

Okon re-iterated that idea, particularly given Postecoglou will have no more than a few sessions in San Pedro Sula with his side, while the majority of Jorge Louis Pinto's crew have been assembled for over a week.

"For us, it's do what needs to be done, then look forward to another important game on home soil. I don't know if that will play too much into the minds of preparing the game. Ange is a coach where his approach doesn't change too much: more than likely the same, to play the football the Socceroos play, attack, and from that side of it, you don't need a week to lead into it."

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Australia head coach, Ange Postecoglou (C).
Socceroos head coach Ange Postecoglou (centre).

But with that template, comes a warning.

"You have to have a positive mindset, that's important, but there'll be times in the game where you'll really have to stand up. It's tricky, because of what's at stake. If it was a normal qualifying game, yeah, then you don't have those things in your mind. The fact it's the first game of a two legged qualification, there's going to be some tricky moments in the game. It's about how we manage that.

"When we need to defend, the attacking mindset goes out, you defend for your life. There'll be moments where we have the ball, and sure, we need to be able to hurt the opposition and have them on the back foot but we have to concede that, at times, it's not a normal qualification game in terms of what's on your mind.

"It's life or death.

"There's no next game. We need to manage this."

Honduras' coach, Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto conducts a training session.
Honduras' coach, Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto conducts a training session.

It's a very fine balance to be struck, one where the entire nation will take a result over a kamikaze attacking display. Will that mean a slightly different approach from the usually proactive at all costs Socceroos?

"That's a difficult question," Vidmar concedes. "Knowing how Ange wants to play he doesn't want to be on the back foot or sit off. If you can actually put them under pressure and not be gung ho in a disciplined way, making it hard for them to have time on the ball - (via) the defensive side of the game, off the ball - making sure when they don't have the ball, they make it difficult for Honduras to get any rhythm.

"You don't want the crowd to start to build momentum themselves, with easy shots or crosses, they'll thrive on that."

Indeed, as the 1-0 first leg in 2005 illustrates, there's nothing wrong with keeping it tight. In fact, that can heighten the tension in this part of the world as much as anything.

"If you can keep the crowd quiet, it goes a long way, because they'll get frustrated."

Could Vidmar sense that in 2005, did that spur the Socceroos on?

"Yeah definitely - first leg game set it up. We felt during the game, they had chances, they created, we created, but you could sense from them, the longer the game went they were starting to get frustrated. That's great. They start to deviate from how they want to play, their discipline starts to go, that's when you can break through them and steal a goal. They will be up. Defensively we need to make sure every challenge we compete, no easy free-kicks around the box they can deliver, they're the moments the crowd can get behind them.

Alvaro Recoba gets through Sooceroos defence of Lucas Neill, Tony Popovic, Tony Vidmar and Jason Culina during the first leg in the 2005 World Cup play-off.
Alvaro Recoba gets through Sooceroos defence of Lucas Neill, Tony Popovic, Tony Vidmar and Jason Culina during the first leg in the 2005 World Cup play-off.

"Keep them as far away from goal as possible, during the game that's a win - they're not shooting on goal, putting the goalkeeper or defenders on the back foot."

Given the knocks the team has suffered recently, Vidmar hopes this is their stage to "shut a few people up".

While he's confident they will, he has a few warnings about managing the tie, particularly away from home.

"I think the one thing that going into the Honduras game is (important) is they don't get sucked into their tactics: feigning injury, rolling around, trying to get you sent off.

"I think the 1993 Argentina experience, 2001 Uruguay experience, that had us prepared - or definitely me - for 2005. But, I knew after 93, what to expect against South American teams. That's going to be a big one, that they don't get sucked into their game, dropping to their level. Control what you can control, how Ange wants them to play, that's why I'm confident. If they get sucked into it, that'll be our downfall."

Okon is also confident, explaining why this crop, and scenario, differs from his.

"I think we had just as good a team in 2001 as we did in 2005, but I just think we didn't have that experience to deal with it. I think we do now. I'm quite confident that we have to play over there first game - we spoke about the hostility of it and the difficulty of it - it's not going to affect too many players, whereas I think 2001, we played the first game home and second away. In hindsight, we probably needed to go to Montevideo with an extra goal and a bigger lead. I don't think we were prepared to manage a 1-0 lead over there and deal with what we had to."

SPECIAL PODCAST: foxsports.com.au's David Weiner is joined by match commentators Simon Hill and Andy Harper, Socceroos goalkeeper Danny Vukovic and Diego Paz, Chief Editor of local media outlet Diez.