Top dogs Mexico and Costa Rica face off this Friday on the third matchday of CONCACAF’s final Hexagonal round of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. And while bragging rights are on the line at the top of the table, struggling giants USA, and their new coach Bruce Arena, will be fighting for their very lives when Honduras come to town. Desperate to crawl off the foot of the table, anything less than a win for the point-less Americans would be disastrous to their hopes of reaching an eighth-straight world finals.
*The big game *
*Mexico-Costa Rica *
Costa Rica were the darlings of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, their run to the quarter-finals seeing them collect such notable scalps as Uruguay and Italy. Now under new management in coach Oscar Ramirez, they are keeping up the form, bolstered by the fine play of all-rounder Celso Borges, captain Bryan Ruiz of Sporting Lisbon, Real Madrid’s outstanding goalkeeper Keylor Navas and dynamic striker Joel Campbell. But their perfect record will be put to the toughest test so far when they take on Mexico at the fabled Azteca in a clash of CONCACAF’s current heavyweights.
The Mexicans are coming off a goalless draw on the road in Panama and will be eager to show off their ability in attack when the Ticos arrive in the capital. A win would put *El Tri *on top of the final six-team standings, one point ahead of the Costa Ricans who currently lead. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio has a raft of injury problems to deal with, and will be without the services of Gio dos Santos, Jesus Tecatito Corona, Hirving Lozano, Javier Aquino, Marco Fabian, and captain Andres Guardado, who pulled out late with an unspecified leg injury. The game will be a true test of Mexican depth.
*Trinidad and Tobago *are propping up the table alongside USA, having failed to win or draw in their previous two matches. New coach Dennis Lawrence, member of the only T&T side ever to reach a World Cup, is hoping for something special when *Panama, tied with Mexico on four points from two games, arrive at the Hasely Crawford Stadium.
Bruce Arena, who replaced Jurgen Klinsmann as *USA *boss in November, will also be eager to get his second campaign in charge of the Stars and Stripes off to a good start. With zero point from their two games, the Americans are in need of a jumpstart, and fast. They will rely on the budding genius of Christian Pulisic and hope the loss of Germany-based Fabian Johnson and Bobby Wood to injury won’t hurt the side too badly when *Honduras *arrive in San Jose, California. The Hondurans struggled in the previous round, but look to be getting back on track after a 3-1 hammering of T&T last time out.
*Player to watch *
Christian Pulisic (USA)
At a time when most USA fans are bemoaning a lack of talent, they are unanimously unified and energised by the huge potential of young Pulisic. He recently broke into the first team at German giants Borussia Dortmund, and scored last week in the UEFA Champions League. There’s no telling how good the 18-year-old can be. He’s already bagged three goals in 11 caps under former coach Klinsmann and is set to take up the role of attacking sparkplug under new man Arena.
*Did you know? *
USA coach Bruce Arena and T&T boss Dennis Lawrence both played for their respective national teams. Lawrence made 89 caps and scored the winning goal in an intercontinental play-off against Bahrain that took the Soca Warriors to Germany 2006, their only World Cup appearance to date, while Arena played one half as goalkeeper in a friendly in Israel in 1973. For what he lacks in international playing chops, Bruce Arena has the distinct edge in coaching experience over Lawrence, who is just starting out in his managerial career. The last time Arena coached the Stars and Stripes, from 1998 to 2006, is considered a golden age of US soccer. He oversaw 75 wins and led the team to within inches of the 2002 World Cup semi-finals.
What they said
*“This is a must-win game; it’s as simple as that. I’m not shy about saying it. From these two games in this international break, we need four points at least. It won’t be easy, but I think we can get them,” *USA coach Bruce Arena leaves no room for ambiguity when talking to *FIFA.com *about the pair of upcoming qualifiers at home against Honduras and away to Panama.
Fixtures (Round Five, Matchday 3)
*24 March *
Trinidad and Tobago-Panama
Up Next (Round Five, Matchday 4)
Trinidad and Tobago-Mexico