Juan de Dios Castillo is a man on a mission. Just weeks after taking over at the helm of the El Salvador national team, the Mexican coach now faces a run of fixtures during which there is very little margin for error, given their importance to his adopted nation’s hopes of appearing at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Two consecutive encounters with Guyana and one with Costa Rica are likely to decide the fate of La Selecta, who over the next 270 minutes are determined to edge closer to a place in the final round of CONCACAF Zone qualifying.
Castillo, in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, talks about his footballing hopes and beliefs, making it clear that, despite having to face certain hurdles, he and his players are ready to stand up and be counted as the moment of truth arrives.
Feasible, not futile
At first glance, the two qualifying results obtained by the Salvadorans thus far appear anything but disappointing. A creditable 2-2 draw away to Costa Rica was then followed by a narrow 2-1 home defeat by a highly fancied Mexican side.
However, when the newly installed tactician looks at the cold hard figures, he finds it difficult not to express concern about the Central Americans’ current position in Group B. “Ultimately the only thing that counts is points," he said. "From the six available, we’ve taken just one, and we’re sitting in third place. That’s the reality of our situation; there’s no way around it.”
Despite this assessment, Castillo doesn't believe that qualification is beyond their reach, but rather that a different mindset is required for the remaining matches: “Of course we still have a good chance of qualifying, but we must start picking up three points at a time to make it happen.
"We’ll have to work very hard to pick up the results that we need," he continued. "We've looked at it, and we really need to take all nine points from the next three games. If we manage that we’ll be right in the hunt, because you've got to bear in mind that Costa Rica have to face the Mexicans twice, who’ve shown that they’re the strongest team in this pool to date.”
To achieve that objective, the Mexico City native stresses that his charges will need to overcome their main weakness, namely a lack of consistency: “I think El Salvador have technically gifted players, but they just don’t perform to the best of their ability regularly enough," said the 61-year-old coach. "All of a sudden the team will look great, but it only happens intermittently. We’ve chatted about this with the players, and they agree. So far, it’s something we’ve focused on a lot.”
And how does he plan to change this troubling aspect of their performances? “Sometimes the team has played too defensively, trying not to concede, but not actually creating anything at the other end either," he said. "I don’t think it’s a question of complacency; it’s just that they think that a point is enough, and that’s not the right approach
“In my opinion, we should maintain an attacking style of play, keeping hold of the ball and always looking to score, because we have players capable of doing that, after all,” Castillo continued.
Despite the optimistic sentiment, the former Honduras coach has come up against certain obstacles that have prevented him from fully getting across his new approach to the players. “Unfortunately, all of the preparation arrangements were already settled," he explained.
"I wouldn’t have organised things in the same way, mainly because I’ve had very little time with the players. I’ve worked in Mexico and Honduras, and when you call up players there, top-flight clubs don’t stand in your way. Here that’s not the case, and it’s a major drawback. It’s a pattern that’s already well established, and it doesn’t look like changing anytime soon.”
In any event, Castillo believes his team have a good chance of securing the three victories they require, but he nevertheless insists on taking each game as it comes, especially as the first two involve the same opponent, Guyana, a nation viewed as the minnow of the four-team group.
“There are no ‘small’ teams anymore: if you’re not mentally prepared and you think it’s going to be a walk in the park, you’ll end up on the losing side,” said the experienced supremo. “Guyana’s style is similar to the one the English used in the past, hitting long balls to make the most of their physical attributes. They’re quick, strong and dangerous in the air. The key will be to keep the ball on the ground and maintain possession – that’s how we’ll cause them problems.”
It is this sort of concise analysis that the veteran coach strives to get across to his players during the preparation period, especially as the temptation for minds to wander to the key clash with rivals Costa Rica is likely to be strong.
“Let’s be clear about this: I’m not going to think about Costa Rica until we’ve faced Guyana and hopefully beaten them," he said. "We have to treat these matches with the seriousness they deserve, and we shouldn’t be thinking about anything except the next game.”
To end on a positive note, Castillo is keen to highlight how well his players have taken on his ideas, and the extent to which this will bear fruit, in his opinion. “We’re getting to know each other, but the players know that qualification is in our own hands, and that we’re not dependent on anyone else but ourselves," he concluded.
"Morale is high, and there’s a huge desire to work hard and make every effort to secure these victories. That gives me reason to be both pleased and optimistic.”