Tim Cahill provides morale support for fragile Socceroos in World Cup playoff
Tim Cahill may not get on the pitch as Australia venture into the unknown in Honduras this week, but his mere presence in the dressing room could make all the difference.
The nation's record scorer flew out to San Pedro Sula on Monday, delaying his departure by 24 hours to get more intensive treatment on the right ankle he twisted last Friday night while playing for Melbourne City against Sydney FC in the A-League.
Although scans cleared him of any serious damage, it does seem unlikely that the 37-year-old will be risked in Friday's first leg, with the deciding home match in Sydney a mere five days later.
But by simply having Cahill in camp, the morale of the reigning Asian champions will lift a notch. After all, he was there a dozen years ago when Australia overcame Uruguay over two legs to book their first World Cup finals' place in 32 years.
"I've been on the phone two weeks prior with [captain] Mile Jedinak, just speaking about how it was when we were in Uruguay [in 2005]," Cahill told reporters on Monday before flying off. "It's going to be pretty much an eye-opener for these guys. It'll be a bit different, not being in this sort of situation before."
And the "will he or won't he play?" question will give coach Ange Postecoglou tactical leverage against the Hondurans, who will undoubtedly be focusing on one of the few Aussie players they are likely to have heard of.
The Central Americans have their own "injured striker racing to be fit" scenario, with Eddie Hernandez set to make a sensational comeback only two weeks after breaking his cheekbone in a domestic league match.
Having not played in the away leg of the previous playoff against Syria, it could be argued that the Socceroos could have managed without Cahill, who would almost certainly have started on the bench on Friday even if 100 percent fit.
But anyone who travelled to the Malaysian city of Malacca last month will know how much the ex-Everton man contributed to the playing group without stepping onto the field, as Australia managed a 1-1 draw against the Syrians.
Cahill is a big personality and a proven winner who's played in the last three World Cups, and scored in all of them. He added a buzz to the team base at Malacca's Hatten Hotel, and on the training pitch at the nearby Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat Stadiums.
Local fans, who would normally have zero interest in international matches not involving Malaysia, lingered at the hotel every day to meet the superstar who scored more than 100 goals in England. When one young autograph hunter was questioned about why he was hanging around the lobby for so long, he simply imitated Cahill's trademark boxing corner-flag celebration.
Thankfully, Jedinak, with a couple of Aston Villa substitute appearances under his belt after a groin injury, will add much-needed experience as he returns to skipper the side in Honduras.
But the absence of the suspended Mark Milligan, and the Germany-based pair of Robbie Kruse (knee injury) and Mathew Leckie (suspension) could leave the Socceroos short of other on-field leaders.
That will shift the onus onto Australia's unconvincing new generation to step up to ensure that Cahill can be saved for the home leg.
James Troisi (35 caps), Tomi Juric (30 caps), Aaron Mooy (29 caps), Tom Rogic, Trent Sainsbury and Massimo Luongo (all 31 caps) are all in their mid-to-late 20s and will form the core of the starting line-up. They have played well on occasions for the national team, without really stamping their mark in a consistent fashion.
This must be the time for the group to show a greater maturity, without thinking in the back of their minds that Timmy will enter to save the day.
In the second leg against Syria on Oct. 10, it was more smoke and mirrors from Cahill that masked another disappointing display. He scored both goals in an almost super-human 120-minute performance as Australia squeaked through 3-2 on aggregate.
So, his much-younger teammates have a duty in hostile Honduras to ensure that Cahill won't need to be risked from the bench, and that the Aussies can take their charter flight back to Sydney with the tie still in the balance.
Australia can't afford a repeat of the away leg of the 2002 World Cup playoff against Uruguay when several key men went missing as they slumped to a 3-0 defeat in Montevideo.
You'll know that if the assistant referee flashes Cahill's familiar No. 4 midway through the second half on Friday, things have gone horribly wrong.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.