It's crunch time in the North, Central America and Caribbean Zone. The final ‘hexagonal' round is here, and the region's heavyweights all have their sights trained squarely on the three-and-a-half places at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Regional champions the USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago are all in the hunt.
The region's 'big three' is a fairly well-defined trio of teams. The United States, Mexico and Costa Rica will be considered firm favourites to take the top three positions in the hexagonal and lay claim to the three direct berths to the first African finals in 2010. The Americans, led by coach Bob Bradley, have a fine blend of youth and experience to work with and are led by CONCACAF Gold Cup-winning captain and top scorer Landon Donovan.
Mexico, for their part, are hoping to rebound from a dreadfully inconsistent semi-final qualifying round in which they picked up only one point in their last three games and were very nearly edged at the final hurdle by Jamaica. Costa Rica, well-drilled by new boss Rodrigo Kenton, had a very different experience in their semi-final round, winning all six of their games in a startling run of form, albeit in a far weaker section than the Mexicans.
Leading the charge outside the 'big three' is an outstanding Honduras team, led by Colombian tactician Reinaldo Rueda in the technical area and David Suazo and Amado Guevara on the pitch. The Catrachos pipped Mexico to top spot in semi-final Group 2, which also included Canada and talented, if inconsistent, Jamaica. Trinidad and Tobago, after nearly going out in the pre-qualifying rounds to minnows Bermuda, picked things up and managed to put together an effective run to sneak past Guatemala and finish second behind USA in their section. With 40-year-old creator Russell Latapy back from retirement, Dwight Yorke playing well and striker supreme Kenwyne Jones returning from a serious knee injury, the Soca Warriors look good outside bets to reach their second straight, and second ever, FIFA World Cup finals.
El Salvador are a team that cannot be ignored. Overhauled by Mexican coach Carlos de los Cobos, the Central Americans are much improved from recent years and, in their Cuscatlan Stadium, they possess one of the most intimidating venues in all of the Americas. Top scorer Rudis Corrales' seven goals in eight qualifiers make him a player for opposition defences to worry about.
The players to watch
Landon Donovan (USA), Tim Howard (USA), Jozy Altidore (USA), Rafa Marquez (MEX), Andres Guardado (MEX), Carlos Vela (MEX), David Suazo (HON), Amado Guevara (HON), Wilson Palacios (HON), Dwight Yorke (TRI), Russell Latapy (TRI), Kenwyne Jones (TRI), Bryan Ruiz (CRC), Walter Centeno (CRC), Rudis Corrales (SLV), Eliseo Quintanilla (SLV)
The crunch games
The two meetings between the USA and Mexico (on 11 February in the States and 12 August at the Azteca) are bound to be, as always, classic contests marked by intimidation and hard play on the pitch and a lively atmosphere on the terraces. The clashes between Mexico and Honduras (1 April and 9 September) are also bound to be full of incident as the two battled tooth-and-nail to a win apiece in the previous round.
13 - the number of times Mexico have qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals, the best record in CONCACAF. The USA are up next with eight finals appearances. Costa Rica have been to world football's showpiece event three times, while El Salvador have been twice and Trinidad and Honduras have one appearance at the finals to their names.
Did you know?
Mexico have only ever lost one qualifying game at their capital fortress, the Estadio Azteca, 2-1 to Costa Rica on 17 June 2001. The USA, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago and El Salvador have never won at the fabled ground.