The CONCACAF Hexagonal kicks into high gear this month, with Mexico, Panama, Honduras, USA, Costa Rica and Jamaica all playing three times. Much will be known about who will likely take the three automatic spots on offer to the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil come the close of June. FIFA.com takes a look ahead at the first set of matches on Friday night.
The big game
It seems that Mexico are virtually guaranteed a spot at the FIFA World Cup, but their poor start to the Hexagonal had many asking questions about El Tri. Jose Manuel Chepo de la Torre’s men drew all of their first three matches, before finally snapping back to life on Tuesday with a slim – and admittedly nervy – 1-0 win over Jamaica in Kingston. Aldo De Nigris may have been the scorer, but goalkeeper Jesus Corona was the star of the show as Javier Chicharito Hernandez, Andres Guardado and Gio dos Santos all had trouble finding their rhythm. The result, however, is all that matters to the previously under-fire Chepo and his Mexicans are now back on top of the pack, surely a more comfortable position than second-bottom.
Unlike previous years, though, Panama are no pushovers this time around. Led by Luis Tejada and Blas Perez in attack, the lively Canaleros are just one point off Mexico in second place, but also with a game in hand. They have yet to lose at their Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Brazil 2014 qualifying and coach Julio Dely Valdes seems dead set on guiding his side to their first FIFA World Cup. If Panama striker Tejada, who plays his club football in Mexico with Toluca, harbours dreams of upsetting El Tri, though, he’s not letting the secret out to FIFA.com. “It’s going to be a tough game because we’re coming up against one of the best teams in the region, a country that’s been hard to beat,” he said in the build-up.
Elsewhere in the region, USA – who began their Hexagonal account shakily – are building a head of steam ahead of their trip to Kingston to take on Jamaica. The Reggae Boyz are bottom of the six-team field with only two points and will likely be demoralised by Tuesday’s loss to Mexico, in which they once again failed to score a goal. But American star striker Jozy Altidore, who’s coming off a stunning performance in a 4-3 friendly win over Germany, is not taking the underdogs likely, even if it appears the islanders’ qualifying campaign is all over bar the shouting. “When you play in Kingston, you feel like you’re playing against the whole country of Jamaica,” he told FIFA.com. The Americans conceded seven goals in their last two friendlies, so they will need to be at their best in attack, making the current fine form of Altidore and Clint Dempsey, who scored twice against the Germans, of crucial importance.
Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore is coming under heavy pressure in the local press and he will have a job on hands to motivate his foundering squad. “We just need to find some goals,” said the coach who dropped Reggae Boyz’ all-time top-scorer Luton Shelton for the June matches, opting instead for USA-based Ryan Johnson. “It’s always the last thing to come."
The third game of the night is an all-Central American clasico as Honduras head over to face Costa Rica in San Jose. The Hondurans have drawn against Mexico and beaten USA so far, and will now be eager to show they can do a job away from home. However, the Costa Ricans, and their playmaker captain Bryan Ruiz, are always impressive on home soil. With the USA, Honduras and Costa Rica all tangled on four points, something’s bound to give way on Friday.
What they’re saying
“We’re at our best when we’re battling together as a team. We need to be a hard team to beat and we need to get back to being a team that opponents don’t want to meet. These three games in June are crucial. We need to get as many points as we can.” USA striker Altidore, top scorer for Dutch club side AZ Alkmaar this term, wants the Stars and Stripes to get back to their roots. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann may preach a philosophy of “proactive football,” but there’s still a lot to be said for guts and teamwork.
7 – The number of games Panama have played at their home stadium without defeat in the semi-final and final qualifying rounds for Brazil 2014 - that’s over 645 minutes of football without a loss. In those seven games, the Canaleros have scored 15 goals while conceding just three. Only once in the campaign have they failed to score at their Estadio Rommel Fernandez. Mexico and their coach would do well to be wary of stats like that before kick-off at week’s end.
Have your say
Can Mexico keep up winning ways after their victory over Jamaica earlier this week, or will Panama prove they are minnows no longer with the help of their fearsome home-field advantage? Click ‘add your comment’ and let us know what you think.