This Wednesday the North, Central American and Caribbean Zone will play host to a genuine David v Goliath clash, when Honduras welcome Puerto Rico in San Pedro Sula. Though Los Catrachos are heavy favourites to win the tie, Los Boricuas are well capable of springing a surprise.
With their national team a perennial force on the CONCACAF scene, many Honduran fans rate the current squad as the most talented in their country's history. Boasting the likes of Inter Milan striker David Suazo and Genoa midfielder Julio Cesar de Leon, the Albiazules' faithful will be confident their side can build a comfortable advantage ahead of the return leg in Puerto Rico.
"We can't get carried away"
With that aim in mind, Honduras coach Reinaldo Rueda believes that patience will be key to a successful first-leg result. "We need to be prepared for any situation, even if it's still 0-0 at half-time," says the experienced Colombian strategist. "Puerto Rico are demanding opponents, they are disciplined, athletic and compete for every ball."
The respected tactician also took the opportunity to warn against the wave of overconfidence that has swept through several sections of the local media. "I just don't understand it: they're taking this situation for granted but nobody in Honduras has seen Puerto Rico play, nor have they been following their progress or watched videos of them," says Rueda. "For that reason, I don't know why they are saying we should win comfortably."
Julio Cesar de Leon, one of the Catrachos' most influential players, echoed his coach's thoughts. "We're in relaxed mood and hoping to improve on our past mistakes. We can't wait to take on Puerto Rico, but we mustn't get carried away by the public euphoria," warned the Serie A veteran. "We need to be realistic and keep working hard, we need to respect our opponents and stop talking about emphatic wins."
That said, Honduran fans would claim their confidence is more than justified by the national team's record at the Estadio Olimpico in San Pedro Sula. The stadium was the scene for several of the Catrachos' most glorious victories, including comfortable successes over El Salvador, Nicaragua and a 3-1 win over CONCACAF heavyweights Mexico in 2001.
In a unique position to offer insight on the visiting Boricuas is Honduras midfielder Ramon Nunez, who worked under current Puerto Rico supremo Colin Clarke in the United States. "He was my coach at Dallas back in 2004, and he's particularly good at setting out his teams tactically," says Nunez. "They'll be well positioned out on the pitch and we'll only be able to make enough space to break them down by moving the ball about."
On the way up
One thing is certain, Puerto Rico must not be underestimated. Though they may lie several notches below Wednesday's hosts in the regional hierarchy, the fact that most of their side play together every week for US second-tier outfit Puerto Rico Islanders can only work in their favour.
The national side can also count on a number of up-and-coming talents playing college football in the USA, while the recent launch of the country's first professional league should, in time, start producing a steady flow of new players. Unfortunately, the Puerto Rico Islanders' contingent aside, many of the current Boricua squad have spent very little time together.
Indeed, some players only met for the first time after touching down at San Pedro Sula airport, though defender Christopher Gores remains positive. "We don't know too much about Honduras, though we do know that they are a very strong team," says Gores. "I couldn't tell you what a 'good' result would be, but our aim is to put in the best performance possible."
The second leg of this clash, part of stage two of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ South Africa, will take place on 14 June in the Puerto Rican capital San Juan.