The third round of Brazil 2014 qualifying in North, Central America and the Caribbean kicks off on Friday, with favourites Mexico and USA commencing their campaigns against hungry upstarts with something to prove. El Tri face Guyana, who caused a sensation by eliminating Trinidad and Tobago in the previous round, while the Stars and Stripes take on Antigua and Barbuda. Elsewhere, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Honduras dip their toes into the qualifying arena.
The big game
Jose Manuel de la Torre’s Mexico are riding high after a historic friendly win over Brazil at the weekend. El Tri have reached the FIFA World Cup finals on 14 occasions, are currently defending their CONCACAF crown and are every inch the standard-setters of the region, boasting a star-studded cast of household names like Andres Guardado, Javier Chicharito Hernandez and Gio Dos Santos.
Their opponents, Guyana, arrive with a humbler profile, this third-round appearance representing their greatest international achievement to date. However, their Trinidad-born coach Jamaal Shabazz has assembled a squad led by English journeymen brothers Leon and Carl Cort, and brimming with confidence. “If we keep them (Mexico) scoreless for 20 minutes or so, the fans might turn on them. Then anything can happen,” Ricky Shakes, who scored to help eliminate Kenwyne Jones and his Trinidad and Tobago in the biggest shock of the previous round, recently told FIFA.com. "It’s David and Goliath, but anything is possible.
The other games
Jurgen Klinsmann’s USA take on lowly Caribbean outfit Antigua and Barbuda in Florida in their first outing of the 2014 qualifiers. The clash smacks of a walkover for the Americans, who have reached every FIFA World Cup finals since 1990, but their Caribbean opponents have reason to dream of an upset. Led by the goals of top-scorer Peter ‘Big Pete’ Byers, the islanders knocked out Haiti and will be no pushover. “We fear no one,” said Byers, by way of warning. The Americans, for their part, may be fearing recent form, with a 0-0 draw against Canada and a 4-1 loss to Brazil showing some cracks in their armour.
The other game in Group A sees Jamaica enter the fray, if somewhat depleted. Former playing star-turned-coach, Theodore Whitmore took the decision to drop standouts Marlon King and Chris Humphrey for breaking curfew. It was a bold move, and could benefit Guatemala, who strolled through the previous round, winning all six of their games, scoring 19 times and conceding only three.
While Mexico and giant-killers Guyana take top billing in Group B, the other fixture in the section looks likely to be a scorcher between two evenly matched Central American sides. Costa Rica play their first game of the campaign against El Salvador, who won all of their contests in the previous round. Ticos coach Jorge Luis Pinto will have to make do without star man Bryan Ruiz, who broke his foot playing for club side Fulham. Young Arsenal ace Joel Campbell, just 19, is hoping to pick up the standard, claiming: “I can’t wait for the match…we’re dreaming of Brazil 2014.”
Honduras look like favourites over in Group C, where they take on Panama at home in their first game. The section’s other contest sees Canada, who had minimal trouble in what was a manageable second-round group, travel to Havana to take on Cuba, a demi-power in the Caribbean zone, who received a bye through to the third round.
What they said
“It’s never easy in our part of the world. I think the assumption probably from around the world is that this is an easy place to qualify. The reality is, it’s not - it’s difficult and it always has been and always will be,” USA's Landon Donovan, taking part in his fourth qualifying cycle, tries to ease the pressure of facing the underdog Antiguans.
17 – The number of Antigua and Barbuda’s 23-man national team that play their club football for Antigua Barracuda FC. Based out of holiday hot-spot St John’s, it is the dual-island nation’s only professional club. They play in the third tier of the USA’s pro system, and Englishman Tom Curtis coaches both Barracuda and the national team. There will be no club-v-country rows in this tight-knit squad.
CONCACAF third round, matchday one
USA-Antigua and Barbuda
Costa Rica-El Salvador
Have your say
Do you foresee any shocks on this first day of third-round action in CONCACAF? Will Mexico, USA or any of the other big guns crumble under the pressure?