Honduras' headline-grabbing win over Ecuador and El Salvador's heavy defeat to the same South American opponents provided the main talking points as the nations of Central America continued their fine-tuning ahead of the qualifying phase for 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. If the latest round of results are anything to go by, we could well be in for the tightest qualification battle of recent times.
Honduras dictate the pace
Of the four Central American sides in action this week it was Honduras who undoubtedly caused the biggest stir. Marshalled by Colombian coach Reinaldo Rueda, Los Catrachos secured one of their best results for some time in consigning recent FIFA World Cup regulars Ecuador to a 2-1 defeat.
Not surprisingly, Honduras' goals came from their in-form stars David "La Pantera" Suazo, the flamboyant Inter Milan forward, and Julio "Rambo" Leon, the Genoa midfielder, with the Ecuadorians replying through Jorge Guagua from the penalty spot. The unexpected win has fanned Honduran hopes of a return to the biggest stage of all for the first time since Spain 1982.
Rueda's men tuned up for Wednesday's heartening win over the South Americans with a goalless draw with neighbours Costa Rica at the Reschler Stadium in Connecticut on Sunday. Chances were thin on the ground in a tight, tense encounter that underlined the intensity of the rivalry between the two sides, and it was the Ticos who claimed bragging rights, for the time being at least, when they prevailed 3-2 in the subsequent penalty shootout.
That stalemate in the States was the first of two encounters for Costa Rica against sides expected to push them hard for a ticket to South Africa. Just three days later, they were in Toronto for another warm-up match, this time with Canada.
Considering the calibre of their opponents, the fact they were away from home and were down to ten men for virtually the entire second half, the Ticos had every right to be pleased with a 1-1 draw with the Canucks. Victor "Mambo" Nunez gave them the lead just after the break only for Randall Azofeifa to see red just moments later. Dwayne DeRosario completed the scoring with an equaliser for the Canadians on 54 minutes.
Another CONCACAF contender to pull off a creditable draw was Panama in Venezuela. The Canaleros showed they ought to be a force to be reckoned with come the qualifiers by dominating their opponents and coming within a minute of victory. Rolando Escobar put the men in red ahead with 15 minutes to go, with Giancarlo Maldonado snatching an injury-time equaliser for the Vinotinto, sparking some bad-tempered scenes after the final whistle.
The only negative note on an otherwise satisfactory day for the region's teams was El Salvador's emphatic 5-1 defeat to Ecuador in Quito. Carlos de los Cobos's side never got into the game and were further hampered by the dismissals of Victor Merino and Eduardo Campos.
All in all a day of contrasts for Central American outfits, although one side not to put themselves to the test this week were regional heavyweights Guatemala, coach Hernan "Bolillo" Gomez deciding instead to take 18 of his players off too Seattle for a motivational training course. With the day of reckoning fast approaching, Gomez will soon know if his trip did the trick.