The 2007 Central American Cup kicks off tonight and will send five teams from the sub-region to this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup in the United States. The competition will take place in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador between 8 and 19 February, and will be made up of one four-team group and another section made up by just three sides.
In this, the ninth edition of the competion, Group One will consist of outsiders Belize, Guatemala - still favourites despite their recent international wobbles under Hernan Dario Gomez - Nicaragua and the hosts.
Group Two will pit ever-improving Panama against five-time and defending UNCAF champions Costa Rica and Honduras in a formidable looking three-way battle.
Despite only showcasing three teams, it is this latter group that is being widely tipped to provide the tournament's champion when the dust settles. With five Central American titles to their name and having reached the last two FIFA World Cup™ finals (three overall), Costa Rica - led by new boss and former international legend Hernan Medford - will be overwhelming favourites to reach the semi-finals at least.
But pedigree and history alone will not do the job. Only just recently ending a four-game winless streak with a 4-0 win over Caribbean Cup finalists Trinidad and Tobago, the Ticos, banking on the attacking firepower of Rolando Fonseca and Alonso Solis, will need to rediscover their old form.
However, Panama, who amazingly reached the final of last year's CONCACAF Gold Cup in the USA and just sent their U-20 team to a third consecutive FIFA U-20 World Cup , are on a steep incline and will be keen on upsetting the Costa Ricans. Led by a new manager in former Costa Rican international and head coach Alexandre Guimaraes , the Canaleros will need to come to grips with the retirement of the fabled Dely Valdes brothers, Julio and Jorge, and push forward rising stars the likes of Luis Tejada and Ricardo Phillips. A recent 2-1 win over Trinidad andTobago will do Panamanian confidence no harm.
The Hondurans are to be led by Colombian head coach Reynaldo Rueda through the FIFA World Cup qualifiers for South Africa 2010 , but caretaker Jose de la Paz Herrera ,who takes the place of recently deceased coach Flavio Ortega , will hold the reins in El Salvador. The Catrachos will be desperate to pick up their first UNCAF crown since 1995 and stop the rot of a recent slide in fortunes. Despite having won the 1993 and 1995 events, Honduras have not quite managed to live up to their tag as rising stars in recent years. A recent 1-1 draw with Demark will no doubt boost hopes of a revival.
Over in Group One, the Salvadoran hosts will be hoping to create a stir on the back of a recent win over the Danes on home soil. The solitary goal came from Eliseo Quintanilla and thankfully ended a 12-game winless streak, with their last victory coming all the way back in August of 2004.
Guatemala eye improvement
While Belize and Carlos Alberto de Toro's Nicaragua will go into the tournament with genuine ambitions, a quick glance at the history books of the Central American Cup proves that Guatemala will be Group One favourites, despite current form telling a troubling tale.
Head coach and former Colombia boss Hernan Dario Gomez, appointed in April, has had a rough start to life in Central America. Losing twice to Honduras, once to Venezuela, once to Panama and drawing recently crowned Caribbean champions Haiti , the coach will be doubly concerned at the prospect of having to make do without renowned goalscorer Carlos 'El Pescadito' Ruiz. However, with the likes of Fredy Thompson and Cesar Alegria to deputise, Gomez's side should still be able to dictate the group's fortunes in El Salvador.
The top two finishers from each group will qualify automatically for the semi-finals - and the Gold Cup - with the two third-place teams squaring off in a play-off on 15 February to seal the fifth and final spot for this summer's regional showpiece.
The Central American Cup semi-finals will take place on 16 February, with the final scheduled for three days later. In the competition's eight-instalment history since 1991, only Costa Rica (5), Honduras (2) and Guatemala (1) have won the prestigious title.
The top five finishers from the Central American Cup will join up with USA, Mexico, Canada, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Guadeloupe and Cuba at the CONCACAF Gold Cup from 6 to 24 June in six venues across the USA.