Twelve teams are still alive in North, Central America and Caribbean qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The survivors have been placed into three intriguing groups of four, with Group 2 looking like a neutral fan's dream as Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica and Canada all battle for two spots in the final round.
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Group 1: USA face tough travels USA, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba
USA will be favourites to take top spot in the section, but will have to get through some hostile travels to do so. After beating Barbados 9-0 on aggregate to reach the first group stage, the Americans will face a first trip to Cuban shores for 61 years, a date at Guatemala's intimidating Estadio Mateo Flores and a test in Port of Spain against a resurgent Trinidad and Tobago.
"Anything can happen on any day in the game of soccer, so you have to be focused, especially during qualifying," said US defender Danny Califf, knowing full well the pitfalls that face his side. Cuba, with new German coach Reinhold Fanz leading the way, will be a tricky proposition after their 8-3 aggregate win over Antigua and Barbuda, as will Guatemala who coasted past St. Lucia without extending themselves. Trinidad and Tobago, who just edged past Bermuda in the last round, will be a tough foe too should they find their form and get Sunderland star Kenwyne Jones back from injury. "We were not up to our usual standard in the first games against Bermuda," said captain Aurtis Whitley. "We will need to do a lot of improving if we are going to be ready for the group portion of qualifying."
Group 2: Baptism of fire for Sven Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica and Canada
Mexico have been handed a monumental task in their group, facing down no less than Honduras and their Inter Milan star David Suazo, a Rene Simoes-led Jamaica, captained by Ricardo Gardner, and Canada, with the likes of Julian De Guzman, Dwayne De Rosario and Paul Stalteri.
El Tri, who beat Belize 9-0 over two legs in their first round, are bound to have a far tougher time of it in their group, with only the top two finishers moving on. "The next round will be very different with stronger teams and a higher level of football," said Carlos Salcido. "But we have to be positive and think we are going to get through and qualify for South Africa. We know we still have a lot of improving to do," he added, seemingly pointing the finger at new boss Sven-Goran Eriksson, who is about to wade into CONCACAF waters for the first time.
Honduras had little trouble dispatching Puerto Rico in their first round, and Jamaica, after years of decline, look set to scale the heights again, beating the Bahamas 13-0 over two legs. Canada, with a squad brimming with talent based in Europe and the USA's MLS, should not be underestimated either as they aim to return to their second FIFA World Cup finals after reaching Mexico 1986.
Group 3: Ticos tipped
Costa Rica, Suriname, Haiti and El Salvador
Costa Rica are the fancied side to take top honours in this section. Despite a wobbly start to qualifying that included a 2-2 draw on the road in Grenada, the Ticos look like the established class act of Group 3.
"We are in the group stages and that was our goal," said Costa Rica coach Hernan Medford. "Now we will need to focus on our task and get better than we have been up to now." The side, led by FC Sion man Alvaro Saborio and young star Celso Borges, will have to face some tricky away dates. Haiti, reigning champions of the Caribbean, had a slow start to qualifying but are bound to be a tough prospect in Port au Prince, while the long trip to Suriname, in the northeast corner of South America, is bound to take its toll.
El Salvador were the true surprise packages of the previous round, knocking out fifth-placed CONCACAF side and runners-up at the 2005 Gold Cup, Panama. The victory was a testament to the team's revival under coach Carlos de los Cobos and the home-field advantage of their Estadio Cuscatlan in the capital of San Salvador. Once a power in Central America, the Salvadorans are hoping to reach the finals for the first time since 1982.
The winners and runners-up from each group will progress to the six-team final-round group in CONCACAF. The games will take place between August and November 2008.