With just three rounds to go, Wednesday night is shaping up to be a crucial matchday in CONCACAF qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
While no teams will officially qualify, the leading four - USA, Honduras (both 13 points), Mexico and Costa Rica (both 12) - could all put a foot closer to next summer's showpiece. El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago, on the other hand, face elimination. A loss for either one will turn to dust their hopes of reaching the first world finals on African soil.
The marquis match-up pits resurgent and revitalised Mexico against Honduras at the fabled Estadio Azteca. The Hondurans beat El Tri in their last two qualifying meetings, both in San Pedro Sula, offering a touch of extra motivation to the Mexicans. However, the Catrachos - coming off a 4-1 victory over T&T at the weekend - have never won on Mexican soil and will be up against a far different side this time around. Javier Aguirre's men have been firing on all cylinders of late and are fresh off consecutive wins over the US and Costa Rica.
Since Aguirre took the reins from Sven-Goran Eriksson in April, Mexican spirit and results have taken a drastic upturn. They are on an 11-game unbeaten streak and, after losing their first game under Aguirre, they have won eight and drawn three.
The coach, in his second stint with the national team, can also take heart in the scintillating performance put in by Giovani dos Santos in the impressive 3-0 rout of Costa Rica on the road in San Jose. The Spurs man, tentative under Erikkson, has found his form, scoring one and setting up two at the weekend. Captain Rafa Marquez and Carlos Vela will again be unavailable through injury, but Mexico can rely on the fine form of Andres Guardado and Efrain Juarez.
"We've suffered away from home," said Dos Santos after Mexico's first road win of the campaign, conversely Costa Rica's only loss at home. "But now the team is working well. We face a tough test against a very good Honduran team and we need to show how we play at home."
Dos Santos is right not to take Honduras lightly. Reinaldo Rueda's charges have the power and pace to unbalance Mexico, even at their fortress Azteca, and the return to fitness of David Suazo - who scored at the weekend - will give added impetus to the Catrachos, who are aiming to reach their first FIFA World Cup since Spain 1982.
Duo face the abyss
In other action, USA - who lead the final six-team 'hexagonal' (tied with Honduras on 13 points) - will travel to Port of Spain to tangle with Trinidad and Tobago. With the islanders playing for their very survival and on the verge of elimination, it could be a tricky night indeed for Bob Bradley's Americans, who lost at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in the previous qualifying round.
"They're playing at home so they'll have some pride," said Landon Donovan, who became the USA's all-time leader in qualifying appearances with a man-of-the-match performance in the 2-1 win over El Salvador in Utah. "I don't know if mathematically they're out but they're pretty close to [being eliminated]. It's hard to know what to expect, but we can't really worry about that. We have to go and try to win the game."
The US defence, which struggled throughout against a much-improved El Salvador, will be bolstered by the return of Oguchi Onyewu after his suspension for an accumulation of yellow cards.
The last game of the night sees Costa Rica travelling to fellow Central Americans El Salvador. With confidence bruised after the previously high-flying Ticos fell from first place to fourth - and out of the frame for one of the three automatic berths in the region - coach Rodrigo Kenton is facing his first real bit of adversity since taking over as coach just over a year ago.
Up against a Salvadoran side who have taken all five of their points so far at their Cuscatlan ground and face elimination with a loss, things will not be easy for Bryan Ruiz, Celso Borges and the talented, though deflated, Costa Ricans.