CONCACAF Gold Cup runners-up Jamaica and 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany™ participants Haiti enter the Russia 2018 qualifying race on Friday. The third round is the last in the CONCACAF Zone before the action switches to a group format and those that have been punching above their weight since the first round - Nicaragua, Belize and Curacao to name three - are aiming to keep the momentum on the road to Russia.
The big game
The Canadians have a few scores to settle in World Cup qualifying. They tumbled out of this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup without bagging a single goal. And, for many in the team, the memory of losing 8-1 to Honduras in Brazil 2014 qualifying is still painfully fresh. The team is coached by Spanish-born boss, and former Real Madrid tactician Benito Floro, and they scored six goals over two legs against Dominica in the first round. However, Belize is a whole other kettle of fish. With a tricky dangerman in Deon MacCaulay, the Central Americans are one of the fastest-improving sides in the region and will not be taken lightly after wins against the Caymans and Dominican Republic in the previous rounds. Fast moving and lively, Belize are eager and on the up. “I just want to keep scoring goals,” Macaulay told FIFA.com, with 20 in 34 appearances. Canada should take note.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines continue on after a goal-littered contest against Guyana that ended 6-6, in which their hot striker Tevin Slater bagged three goals. They have proven they can score, but they are vulnerable in defence, a fact that will not be lost on Aruba who advanced at Barbados' expense.
Haiti start their campaign coming off of an impressive performance at the Gold Cup, where the ‘74 World Cup finalists surged to the quarter-finals. Grenada’s Spice Boyz, for their part, are emerging from a tradition of crude tactics and are eager to upset the apple cart. “We’re a new bunch,” said captain Marc Marshall.
El Salvador are firm favourites against Curacao, and they showed their class in the previous round with a 6-3 result against St Kitts and Nevis. Curacao are led by former Netherlands great Patrick Kluivert, but his collection of Dutch-based lower-level professionals and local strivers are likely to suffer by comparison.
Jamaica come in flying on the back of their best-ever finish at a CONCACAF Gold Cup, where they beat USA to reach the final. Giles Barnes, Jobi McAnuff and Wes Morgan are but a few of the stars in the Reggae Boyz’ formidable side. Nicaragua, more respectable than in recent years, have their work cut out against a Jamaican team that, under German coach Winfried Schafer, are reviving nostalgic echoes of the side that reached the World Cup in 1998.
Antigua and Barbuda round out the action against Central Americans Guatemala. The Antiguans only edged St. Lucia in the previous round, but in coach Peter Nowak – a former Poland captain and Major League Soccer legend – they are hoping for better.
Player to watch
A former English youth international, Giles Barnes was tipped for big things early at Derby County. A skillful and speedy striker, his career took a tumble and led him to Major League Soccer and Houston Dynamo, looking for redemption. When Jamaica came calling in 2015, Barnes was ready for an international reboot too. He showed his worth at the Gold Cup with a keen eye for goal. And he scored one of the goals of the competition, a stunning free-kick as Jamaica beat hosts and favourites USA in the semi-final.
Did you know?
Aruba are the only side in the field to play on after losing in the previous round. Though they fought bravely, the islanders were bested significantly by Barbados, who unfortunately fielded an ineligible player in the second leg. Their punishment meant they were out despite winning easily, and Aruba are back to continue their qualification hopes in Round 3.
0 – The number of goals Canada scored at the recent CONCACAF Gold Cup. In those nearly 300 minutes of barren football, the Canucks conceded only once. But football is, at its core, about goals and Benito Floro’s men will need to find some against Belize.
What they said
“We scored, maybe, 30 per cent of our chances against Dominica in the last round. It’s not good enough. If we can get that number up to 50 per cent, then the floodgates might open and we can do things that people aren’t expecting.” Canada captain Julian de Guzman on the need for goals, precision, and a little bit of luck.
CONCACAF third round (first legs) for Russia 2018
*St. Vincent and the Grenadines-Aruba
Antigua and Barbuda-Guatemala
Return legs of the second-round series will take place on 8 September*