World Cup Preview: 2014 Semifinal Round, Matchday 5
Posted on October 12, 2012 2:40 pm
On one hand, a full year of matches against the best our region has to offer, practically-guaranteed sellouts at every game, overwhelming media coverage and the opportunity to either qualify outright for the World Cup finals or face a less-than-intimidating playoff with the Oceania representative.
On the other, four months of utter despondency at the opportunity lost, subsequent remorse at watching the continental elite play on television, and the inadequate reprieve of the off-beat Gold Cup, where the likes of Mexico will not even bother sending out their best players due to far more important commitments on their calendar.
The difference? Three hours of football that will take place over the next five days, determining who will join Mexico in the Hexagonal. Before getting into where everyone currently stands, here is today’s schedule, with the group and home team listed first (all times EDT).
Friday, October 12:
A – Antigua and Barbuda vs. USA, 7:00 p.m.
C – Canada vs. Cuba, 7:45 p.m.
B – Guyana vs. Mexico, 9:00 p.m.
B – El Salvador vs. Costa Rica, 9:30 p.m.
A – Guatemala vs. Jamaica, 10:00 p.m.
C – Panama vs. Honduras, 10:00 p.m.
Guyana still have a mathematical shot at making history and reaching the final round of World Cup qualifying, with two wins and favorable results elsewhere. Not that their own Federation even considers this feasible: if Jamaal Shabazz accurately relayed his bosses’ thought process on the last home match against Mexico back in June, then the Golden Jaguars’ odds of survival were sufficiently low to justify moving the fixture to Houston, rendering it little more than a money-grab friendly. Unfortunately for Shabazz in particular, US immigration was evidently in no mood to allow entry for a former Islamist coup d’etat participant.
The contrast could not be more stark with the conditions surrounding tonight’s showdown in the Estadio Cuscatlan: Costa Rica, a constant in the Hex since the 1998 World Cup qualifiers, will be eliminated outright with a loss. El Salvador would still have a shot at second place if they fail to dispatch the ticos at home, but practically no one considers it reasonable to depend on a result in Mexico (where the recent record for the national team and clubs Isidro Metapan, FAS and Aguila is comprised of one goleada after another). Both sides have pulled out all the stops for the occasion: Bryan Ruiz will finally make his first start for Costa Rica, while Rodolfo Zelaya (he of the stunning free kick in the last Gold Cup against the same opponent) will make his return for la Selecta after a lengthy recovery from a knee injury that ended his club stint in Russia.
Further south, Panama similarly find themselves only one victory away from safety; and after having beaten Honduras on their own turf, Blas Perez and co. will be confident of sealing their fifth home win on the trot. The visiting catrachos, meanwhile, are guaranteed to still be in contention regardless of what happens at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez; but a draw would simplify the task that awaits them in the group closer against Canada. The Reds will also have one eye on next week as they receive the already-eliminated Cuba, who are just as likely to succumb to a thrashing as they are to strike a serious dent in Canadian hopes by eking out a draw, as happened in Olympic qualifying.
In the most even group, no one will yet be able to seal their place in the final round, although their chances of eventually doing so will be significantly impacted by tonight’s proceedings. First, out in the Caribbean, Antigua and Barbuda will reap the biggest reward from their elementary-round achievement by hosting the United States before a sell-out crowd. If advancement is too lofty a goal (they would need two high-scoring wins and plenty of help to survive), the Benna Boys will at least be able to treat the match as a golden opportunity to showcase the Antigua Barracuda players to Major League Soccer and English league scouts. Jurgen Klinsmann’s walking wounded, on the other hand, will aim to avoid the kind of surprise suffered by Jamaica and build up their goal-differential safety net; mind you, of all the visitors to the Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Grounds in this World Cup, only Curacao have managed to score twice.
What sort of result the US will then need in Kansas City will largely be determined by how much damage their rivals inflict on each other later this evening.
MATCH OF THE ROUND
From the outset, Carlos Ruiz and co. appear more desperate to extract all three points from their last fixture at the Estadio Mateo Flores. Besides their history of futility against Jamaica (whom they have never beaten), the Guatemalans are the only team in the three-way tie atop Group A to have used up their matches against Antigua and Barbuda, and they have yet to defeat either of their immediate opponents. The Reggae Boyz will allow themselves little mental relaxation, however: while a draw will force the chapines to earn a better result at the US than Jamaica do against Peter Byers and co. at the Office, Theodore Whitmore’s side have only avoided defeat twice in their last seven World Cup qualifiers in Central America. Worse, if both Guatemala and the US win tonight, a draw between the two will finish off the Kings of the Caribbean. Neither team is yet at the precipice, but both would love nothing more than to distance themselves from potential disaster.
On a side note, I must finish with a correction to statements made by the ESPN reporters during the recently-concluded Russia-Portugal match. In contrast to Tommy Smyth’s insistence that head-to-head would act as the first tiebreaker if the two were to finish level on points, Article 18, Clause 6 of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Regulations makes clear that total goal differential, then goals scored take priority, with no concessions made to confederations for diverging from this standard.