Costa Rica will be the nominal favourites to take top spot in Group 3 in North, Central America and the Caribbean's first group stage. But with their patchy recent form and some difficult opponents in the form of El Salvador, Haiti and surprise package Suriname, champions of the Caribbean in 1977, an upset or two might lie in wait for the Ticos.
*The favourites * Having qualified for the last two FIFA World Cups™ (and three overall), the Ticos of Costa Rica will be fancied to make it to South Africa 2010. However, a rocky start to qualifying will have their supporters biting their nails. A 2-2 draw on the road to Grenada in their second-round first leg was followed by a comfortable enough 3-0 win in the return fixture in San Jose. It is precisely that kind of inconsistent form that coach Hernan Medford will be hoping to leave in the past as the group stages begin. With a bevy of talented players such as Alvaro Saborio, Celso Borges and Belgium-based Bryan Ruiz, the Costa Ricans surely have the talent required to rule the group.
El Salvador: After routing Anguilla 16-0 in the first round of regional qualifying, El Salvador were expected to fizzle out against fifth-ranked CONCACAF powers Panama. However, Carlos de los Cobos' Central Americans put in a stunning performance at home to overturn the first leg loss (1-0) and pull off a 3-2 aggregate victory. A team very much in the midst of a revival, the Salvadorans - led by Costa Rica-based Eliseo Quintanilla and a host of domestic-based players - will be a difficult side to beat, especially at their notorious Cuscatlan stadium in San Salvador.
Haiti: Although the only difference between Haiti and the Netherlands Antilles in the second round was a Eugene Martha own-goal in the first minute of the second leg, the Francophone islanders are expected to improve with time. Defending champions of the Caribbean, the 1974 FIFA World Cup participants are coached by former French title-winner and native islander Wagneau Eloi, and can pack a serious punch on their day, mainly due to their fierce physical approach and the attacking exploits of Fabrice Noel.
Players to watch
Alvaro Saborio (CRC), Celso Borges (CRC), Bryan Ruiz (CRC), Pierre Bruny (HAI), Eliseo Quintanilla (SLV), Clifton Sanvliet (SUR), Orlando Grootfaam (SUR)
The crunch game
El Salvador-Costa Rica: The Salvadorans currently fancy themselves as giant-killers after taking down heavily fancied Panama in the previous round. The Cuscatlan stadium is known as one of the truly intimidating venues in Central American football, and the heavily tipped Ticos will be feeling its sting when they make the short trip to San Salvador.
A look back
Mexico-Costa Rica 1-2, 16 June 2001, Mexico City
A goal in the 86th minute by current Costa Rica coach Hernan Medford handed Mexico their only loss at the Azteca Stadium in FIFA World Cup qualifying history. It also set the stage for the Ticos to reach the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, their first finals since Italy 1990. They finished ahead of Mexico and the USA by six clear points in the qualifying stages for Korea/Japan 2002.
The stat 8 - the number of players in the current Suriname squad who play for club side SV Robinhood.
Did you know?
Dutch stars past and present draw their bloodlines back to Suriname. Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Ruud Gullit, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Frank Rijkaard, Aron Winter and 'the Suriname Diamond' Romeo Castelen were all either born in Suriname or draw their lineage from there. However, due to a peculiarity of Surinamese emigration policy, players who leave the country are no longer eligible to play for the national team.
Can El Salvador reclaim their status in the region, and return to the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1982?