Socceroos need to keep Ange, make harsh decisions for 2018 World Cup
After the longest qualifying campaign in their history, Australia secured their place in a fourth consecutive World Cup with a 3-1 victory over Honduras in their second-leg playoff in Sydney on Wednesday night.
Over 22 games, dating back almost two-and-a-half years years, the Socceroos may have looked unconvincing on occasions. However, they did show resilience to negotiate trips to far-off places like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and hold their nerve in four playoff games.
But to be competitive at Russia 2018, here are five things they will need to urgently address.
1. Resolve Ange Postecoglou's future
The future of the national coach remains up in the air, with the ex-Melbourne Victory boss refusing to reveal his intentions after the Honduras games, as rumours swirl that he is considering stepping down.
With his determination to play attractive, passing football at all costs, Postecoglou is certainly a man of conviction. But some might say his unwillingness to relax his ideals for a more pragmatic approach in certain matches almost saw Australia miss out on the World Cup.
Even so, Football Federation Australia must do everything they can to keep the 52-year-old. As he showed during the 2015 Asian Cup triumph, and at the 2017 Confederations Cup, Postecoglou is an excellent tournament coach.
2. Keep Tim Cahill in cotton wool
He'll be only six months short of his 39th birthday when the World Cup finals begin next June, but Cahill simply must go to Russia if he's fit and able.
Starting the second leg against Honduras, Australia's record scorer was clearly not 100 percent after badly twisting his ankle in an A-League match just 12 days earlier.
But Cahill's presence on the field, and in the dressing room, gave the Socceroos a massive lift under immense pressure.
The 2017 side are nowhere near as good as the 2005 Golden Generation heroes who beat Uruguay in a playoff to progress to Australia's first World Cup finals in 32 years. But the current crop has developed a resolve and mental toughness that comes down to the influence of Cahill and captain Mile Jedinak.
And, of course, the Melbourne City man proved with his two goals in the previous playoff against Syria on Oct. 10 that he remains a critical aerial threat, even as he approaches middle age.
3. Get the combinations right
It is an advantage that Australia have so many options when it comes to selection, especially in midfield. However, the chemistry of the starting XI in the second leg against Honduras simply wasn't right.
With Jedinak, Mark Milligan, Aaron Mooy, and Tom Rogic all playing together, the Socceroos were too static, lacking penetration and thrust.
They missed the busy Massimo Luongo, one of their standout performers from the first leg. And even Melbourne Victory's James Troisi may have made a difference with his directness and pace.
Postecoglou must get the combinations right to make the Socceroos a more cohesive and dynamic attacking force next year. Dominating possession is all very well, but a lack of a cutting edge continues to hurt the reigning Asian champions.
4. Find an effective starting striker
One of the heroes of the 2015 Asian Cup triumph, Tomi Juric has been a loyal servant of the Socceroos for the past four years. But it was his lack of clinical finishing in the first leg, as he spawned a couple of golden opportunities, that left the national team in a vulnerable position against Honduras, without an away goal to take back to Sydney.
He's scored only eight times in 32 appearances, despite having a midfield that provides him with a wealth of opportunities.
Juric needs to be in the squad, but, surely, there must be a more lethal starting striker that Australia can find in the next seven months? It is time for the likes of Jamie Maclaren, Nathan Burns and China-based Apostolos Giannou to step up and grab their opportunity.
Cahill will be invaluable off the bench, but the ageing No. 4 can't be expected to lead the line as a starter next year.
5. Make some tough decisions
Just like a dozen years ago when Guus Hiddink wielded the axe, some of the players celebrating the playoff win over Honduras won't actually be on the plane to the World Cup finals.
The pacey Nikita Rukavytsya was an out-of-left-field selection for the playoffs. But the Israeli-based forward simply didn't show enough to suggest that he deserves a precious spot on the 23-man list for Russia.
There are other squad members who received regular call ups, but barely featured in the qualifiers. They must also be moved on.
But one man who should be brought back is ex-Bundesliga defender Matthew Spiranovic, who was so crucial to the 2015 Asian Cup success.
The Socceroos' over-reliance on Trent Sainsbury means they have virtually no cover if the Jiangsu Suning centre-back gets injured.
Spiranovic, like Sainsbury, plays in China, but would be well advised to look for a move from second-tier Hangzhou Greentown to improve his chances of playing in a second World Cup finals.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.