The six surviving nations in North, Central America and the Caribbean will begin their ten game round-robin (known in the region as the 'hexagonal') on 11 February as the bid for a place in the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. USA host arch-rivals Mexico in frosty Ohio, Trinidad and Tobago head for hot atmosphere in El Salvador and Central American titans clash as Costa Rica welcome Honduras to San Jose. Join FIFA.com for a look ahead to the start of the final round in CONCACAF.
USA-Mexico: The Clasico
The US will be the favourites when they host their neighbours to the south, Mexico, in the 55th meeting between the two nations. The Americans, led by Landon Donovan and reliable keeper Tim Howard, have a fine record at Crew Stadium in Columbus, where temperatures are likely to be below freezing.
The US have never lost a qualifier at the ground, including two wins over the Mexicans. El Tri have never scored there and, further adding to USA's edge, the hosts have not lost at home to Mexico in ten tries. "We are excited about returning to Columbus," said coach Bob Bradley, who led the US to top spot in the last stage. "We enjoy a great history there, and we appreciate the fantastic support. We are looking forward to an incredible atmosphere."
Bradley has hinted he will call up more foreign-based players (the likes of Clint Dempsey, Damarcus Beasley and Jozy Altidore) due to the fact that MLS is in its close season. But his opposite number, However, Sven-Goran Eriksson, is likely to have the bigger selection headaches. Gerardo Torrado and Carlos Vela both miss out after seeing red in their last game, while Deportivo La Coruna's Andres Guardado and Fernando Arce are unavailable through injury. Additionally, Jonny Magallon and Aaron Galindo are unlikely to recover in time from their respective knocks.
The Swede will also need to contend with a huge dip in his team's confidence. The Mexicans picked up just one point from their final three matches in the last round and barely edged past Jamaica on goal difference.
El Salvador-Trinidad and Tobago: Cuscatlan showdown
Resurgent El Salvador are undergoing one the finest moments in their footballing history. Finalists at the FIFA World Cups™ of 1970 and 1982, they will be hoping to keep things on the right track at the Estadio Cuscatlan Stadium against the lone remaining Caribbean participants; the Soca Warriors of Trinidad and Tobago.
Colombian tactician Francisco 'Pacho' Maturana, who is taking his island charges to train in Argentina, will be relying on national icon Dwight Yorke to lead the side. He is also likely to recall 40-year-old player-coach and revered 'little magician' Russell Latapy, who recently came out of international retirement to score in a crucial win over the US. Yorke's Sunderland team-mate, Kenwyne Jones, has returned to fitness and will add a physical presence up front.
El Salvador's Mexican boss Carlos de los Cobos will look to top scorer Rudis Corrales and the revelatory pairing of Eliseo Quintanilla and Dennis Alas to lead the charge. The Cuscatlecos have lost only one of their last five qualifiers and have home advantage at their intimidating home ground.
Costa Rica-Honduras: UNCAF kings collide
The clash between arguably the best two sides in Central America at present is bound to be a mouthwatering one at the buzzing Saprissa Stadium in the Costa Rican capital.
New star Bryan Ruiz will lead the charge for Rodrigo Kenton's Ticos, while the Hondurans, aiming to return to the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time since 1982, will pin their hopes on Europe-based star David Suazo of Benfica to provide the goal threat. They are also likely to include Maynor Figueroa and Wilson Palacios, who recently made a multi-million pound move to Tottenham Hotspur in their ranks.
Honduras come into the game after a group-winning performance in the previous round, where they edged out Mexico and Jamaica and put in some impressive performances under master tactician Reinaldo Rueda. Costa Rica, for their part, roared through a significantly easier group with flying colours, grabbing a perfect 18 points from six straight wins over Haiti, Suriname and El Salvador.