The standout section
On paper, Group E would appear to be the closest to call with Grenada, currently the lowest-ranked seed in Round Two, locking horns with Guatemala, a team accustomed to participating in the final round of qualification. Group A promises to be equally intriguing as El Salvador and Surinam renew the rivalry that saw the former emerge victorious on two occasions in South Africa 2010 qualifying.
Taking into account results over the last few months, there is little doubt that the hot favourites in Group C are Panama. Semi-finalists at the CONCACAF Gold Cup in June, *Los Canaleros *possess a young squad that is not short on talent. In Group D, Canada will be the side to beat, as will El Salvador in Group A. Pools B, E and F seem less easy to predict, though Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala and Haiti will all fancy their chances of advancing.
Puerto Rico have made significant progress in recent years, as demonstrated by the results obtained by their most high-profile club, the Islanders, and they will do their best to upset the odds by qualifying ahead of Canada. In 2009, Nicaragua surprised many by reaching the Gold Cup at the expense of Guatemala, but Group C rivals Panama will provide an even tougher obstacle to overcome this time round. As for Surinam, whose team is composed mainly of players based in the Netherlands, they will be hoping to spring a surprise on Group A favourites El Salvador.
The crunch matches
Trinidad and Tobago-Guyana: Some regional clashes of note are already on the cards for this round, such as this all-Caribbean contest, and also Panama-Nicaragua.
Mexico-Costa Rica: Looking ahead to the third round, this is arguably the most mouth-watering duel of the entire CONCACAF campaign, an always enticing fixture lent extra spice by the presence of ex-Mexico coach Ricardo Lavolpe on the Tico bench
*USA-Jamaica: * A repeat of this year’s Gold Cup quarter-final, it should provide another highlight of the third qualifying round.
2 –* *The number of sections that are made up exclusively of Caribbean sides. The groups in question – B and F – will certainly not be lacking in rhythm, passion and regional rivalry.
The next step
When the six group winners eventually emerge from Round Two, awaiting them in the next phase will be CONCACAF heavyweights Mexico, USA, Honduras and Costa Rica, as well as Jamaica and Cuba. During the draw, these teams were also placed into sections in preparation for Round Three, with fascinating results.
For the most part, USA will not be too upset with the cards dealt them in Group A. While Jamaica will provide a tough test, the Stars and Stripes will fancy their chances of moving on from a pool that will include the winners of Groups E and F – possibly Guatemala and Haiti – from the previous stage.
Group B could be a closer affair, although great rivals Mexico and Costa Rica will be strong favourites to reach the final phase. El Salvador, who put in some solid performances at the Gold Cup last month, and Trinidad and Tobago, who are undergoing a rebuilding process under veteran German coach Otto Pfister, are likely to fill the remaining slots.
It is Group C, however, that promises to be the most open of the three. The signs point to a battle between Honduras, slight group favourites, a fast-improving Panama side, and Canada, who have an exciting generation of young players coming through. This supposition is of course dependent on the latter two making it through from the previous round. Cuba are likely to play the role of dark horses in the section, but their opponents will underestimate them at their peril.
The first two teams in each of the three Round Three groups will move forward to the traditional six-team final phase, from which the top three will secure their ticket for Brazil 2014, and the fourth will enter an intercontinental play-off with the winner of the Oceania qualifiers.
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