Panama will be looking to rebound from an early exit in qualifying for 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, as the Central Americans lead the pack in CONCACAF’s Round two Group C. Though none of the contenders have ever qualified for the FIFA World Cup, Panama are warm favourites to finish top spot in the group over fellow Central Americans Nicaragua, and Caribbean hopefuls Dominica.

The favourites
Panama: The Panamanians exited 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying at the second hurdle, their nation stunned as they dropped out of contention at the hands of El Salvador. Recent outings suggest, however, that the Canaleros are back on the rise under the guidance of former player Julio Dely Valdes. The Central Americans enter qualifying on the back of a glorious run at the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, where they defeated regional heavyweights USA at the group phase en route to the semi-finals.

The outsiders
Dominica: Though a small Caribbean nation, Dominica have shown an eagerness to progress further in FIFA World Cup qualifying. The islanders first entered the qualifying scene for France 1998, and while never making it past the first hurdle, a victory over Bahamas in the Germany 2006 preliminaries bodes well for their potential progression on the road to Brazil. Equipped with plenty of young talent, Dominica will no doubt be hungry to avenge a narrow aggregate loss to Barbados in the preliminaries for South Africa.

Players to watch
Panamania struck the latest instalment of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and so too did the offensive prowess of Luis Tejada. The veteran striker played last-minute hero for the Central Americans in the quarter-finals against El Salvador, proving an invaluable asset in the Panamanian attack alongside strike-partner Blas Perez.

The crunch match
With Panama the clear favourites for Group C, all eyes will be on the two clashes between challengers Nicaragua and Dominica. The Islanders may be ranked 44 places above their Central American opponents, but having never met before the games will pose a new challenge to both teams, and a pair of victories for either side will leave them with an outside chance of upsetting the status quo.
A look back
Canaleros supporters would surely relish a return-to-form for Panama, a side that came ever so close to qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. The Panamanians had made it to the final ‘hexagonal’ round in CONCACAF qualifying, but two draws against Guatemala and Mexico respectively were all the points they could gather, ultimately falling short in their pursuit of the finals.
Did you know?
Panama coach Julio Dely Valdes has an identical twin brother, Jorge, who coaches the U-17 national side. Each enjoyed successful international careers, while Julio had club spells with the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Malaga and Cagliari.

Have your say
Will Panama finish top spot in Group C, or will Nicaragua and Dominica spring a surprise?