It will be all to play for in the CONCACAF zone over the last two matchdays of semi-final qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. With only high-flying Mexico guaranteed a spot in the final round, the remaining five berths for the Hexagonal are there for the taking.
Central American powers Costa Rica have been in fine form and are nearly sure of a place among the last six, but struggling USA, Honduras, Panama, Jamaica, Canada, El Salvador, Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago all face stern tests, and tests of nerve, with everything on the line.
FIFA.com takes a closer look at Friday’s penultimate semi-final clashes.
The Big Game
Third-place in Group B, Jamaica’s hopes are fading. They go into Friday’s contest needing a result on the road in Panama, against an in-form Canalero team three points ahead of them. The Reggae Boyz we have seen in qualifying are a far cry from the side that shocked the region a year ago by reaching the CONCACAF Gold Cup final for the first time in their history. But bolstered by Leicester City captain Wes Morgan, Winfried Schaefer’s men are keeping the faith. “It would be a mistake for anyone to look at us and see a simple problem,” said the German coach whose side narrowly avoided elimination at the hands of tiny Nicaragua in the previous round.
Adding to Jamaica’s woes will be Panama’s desperation not to let this big moment slip away. Facing a powerful Costa Rica side on the road in their final game, Los Canaleros want to take care of business against the Caribbean islanders on home soil. Panama have a chequered history in games where everything is on the line, and their fans at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez are hoping coach Hernan Dario Gomez can keep a cool head, something he is noted for. “We need to make that small step because sometimes we get everything right and then we go and trip up right at the end,” said the Colombian coach. "We have to win these types of matches to change our history.”
Over in Group A, Canada travel to Honduras in a rematch of a Brazil 2014 qualifier that still gives many of the players in the side from up north nightmares.
In the section’s other game, bottom dwellers El Salvador host a Mexican team already qualified for the final round and perhaps with their mind on other tests to come. The right set of results could still see the Salvadorans slip into one of the top-two spots.
Costa Rica will want to guarantee their place in the Hexagonal with a win over Group B whipping boys Haiti, who have only one point from their previous four games. Although the Ticos, who reached the quarter-finals of Brazil 2014, have yet to lose a game, they will be up against a physically robust challenge in Port-au-Prince with Haitian fans expecting their team to fight, if only for pride.
Group C is surprisingly still wide open. A youthful and zesty Trinidad and Tobago are on top with ten points. Those Soca Warriors face third-place Guatemala in Port of Spain with hopes of securing a place in the final round with a game to go. USA, only one point ahead of the Guatemalans in second, are expected to beat hapless underdogs St. Vincent and the Grenadines on the road.
Player to Watch
Kevin Molino (TRI)
The speedy winger was a skinny 16-year-old when Trinidad and Tobago appeared at their only ever World Cup finals in 2006. He was not even born when the USA’s Paul Caligiuri broke Trinidadian hearts in 1989 to keep the Soca Warriors out of Italia 90. Now 26 and back from a terrible knee injury that threatened his career, the MLS-based wide man is brimming with confidence. “We take no opponent lightly,” he said of the contest with Guatemala, but his mind is clearly on the final game with USA near his adopted home in Central Florida. “We need to show them who we are. There’s no reason we can’t beat them and win this whole group.”
Did you know
Almost four years ago to the day, Canada’s national team traveled to San Pedro Sula needing a draw or a win to stay alive in Brazil 2014 qualifying. History is repeating itself now, as Benito Floro’s Canadians travel again to the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, one of the most intimidating grounds in one of the most intimidating cities in the Americas. They will be hoping there is no repeat of the result from that day in 2012, when Los Catrachos handed out an 8-1 drubbing that sent the North Americans crashing out. Canada’s Besiktas-based midfielder Atiba Hutchinson told FIFA.com: “This is a chance to set the record straight. That game’s been on my mind for a long, long time.”
What they said
“I get a lot of stick from my English club mates when I go on international duty to play countries they’ve never heard of like, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. But if you look at the results in recent competitions, you can see the improvements in CONCACAF. There are no easy-beats here. The quality of competition is getting better all the time.” Stoke City defender Geoff Cameron sets the record straight ahead of USA’s trip to play on a cricket ground in Arnos Vale, on the outskirts of Kingstown.
Fixtures (Round Four, Matchday 5)
Friday 2 September
St. Vincent and the Grenadines-USA
Trinidad and Tobago-Guatemala
Tuesday 6 September
Guatemala-St. Vincent and the Grenadines
USA-Trinidad and Tobago