Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala:
Jamaica will aim to strike a decisive blow in the Reggae Boyz's march towards a place at football's next World Cup when they tackle Guatemala in a crucial qualifying match tonight here.
While not cornered in a must-win situation, Jamaica, currently locked in a three-way tie atop Group A in the CONCACAF semi-final round on seven points with Guatemala and the United States, need to secure at least a draw and a point from the game, which kicks off 8 p.m. (9 p.m. Jamaica time), to remain firmly in contention for one of the group's top two places that guarantee a spot in the final round of qualifiers.
That would also ensure Jamaica retain tight control of their own destiny when the Boyz return home four days from now to face the group's last-place team Antigua & Barbuda. Antigua & Barbuda host the US tonight knowing they have no chance to advance. Guatemala will travel to the US next Tuesday to complete the group's fixtures.
"It's important to keep ourselves alive in the competition," said Jamaica's assistant coach Alfredo Montesso yesterday. " ... This game is as crucial as any one we've had so far."
Head coach Theodore Whitmore said Jamaica will seek a win and widen any margin for error against Antigua & Barbuda, who troubled the Boyz in a 0-0 first-leg draw in June. The coach's optimism is not far-fetched, despite playing away from home. Jamaica dominated and beat Guatemala 2-1 in the first leg in June at the National Stadium through goals from Demar Phillips and Ryan Johnson. That was the sixth time in a row the Boyz had defeated Los Chapines. Jamaica have not lost to Guatemala in 13 matches, including 10 wins, dating back to 1969.
CAPACITY CROWD EXPECTED
But history guarantees little in football. Tonight, a capacity 30,000 crowd is expected at the Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores. Nearly all will back Guatemala. Earlier this week, US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann called Guatemala "a tricky team to play against," following the Americans 1-1 draw here in June. Tonight's forecast of possible rain and mid-60s degree temperatures could raise additional obstacles in Jamaica's quest for magic in Central America.
Jamaica are hoping to bounce back from a 1-0 loss to the US, in their last qualifier on September 11, when the Boyz struggled early against Klinsmann's "high pace ... high pressure" tactics. However, the Boyz appear to have shrugged off that disappointment. They have a point to prove.
"This game is important ... for the country," starting goalkeeper Dwayne Miller said yesterday, "because we need to get something going to really make people see that this team has potential and is going somewhere."
Jamaica look set to return to the 4-4-2 that toppled Guatemala in Kingston. Guatemala are eyeing a similar formation. However, going into the Boyz's final training session, scheduled for yesterday evening at the stadium, there were concerns about the fitness of influential midfielder Rodolph Austin and central defender Adrian Mariappa. Austin has a sore left ankle. Mariappa suffered an injury to the rib area during a collision in practice here earlier this week.
Jamaica will welcome the return of Phillips, who was absent for the US games with injury. His attacking skills and savvy on the left flank were missed against the Americans.
The speed and strength from the combination of forwards Johnson, Luton Shelton, Omar Cummings, Dane Richards, Kavin Byran and Tramaine Stewart should again pose problems for Guatemala's defence. Luiz Rodriguez, who was suspended for Guatemala's last qualifier with an accumulation of yellow cards, is again available, but the home team will not have injured Carlos Gallardo. Rodriquez and Gallardo both started in defence against Jamaica last time.
GUATEMALA GUNNING FOR WIN
Montesso does not think Guatemala will repeat the high-pressure US strategy, saying it is out of their "character". However, he expects them to press for the win, abandoning a short-passing game to try and keep Jamaica deep into their defensive third with a more direct approach.
"A draw will not be a good result for them," he explained. "They have to come and win the game ... One, two, three passes maximum."
If it stays dry, the grass field should aid Jamaica's passing game. How effectively the Boyz can impose their physical presence, especially in midfield, could determine the outcome. So, too, the way Jamaica are able to create their own scoring chances. Playmaker Jermaine Hue has been recalled. His vision and imagination, plus the threat he brings as an outside shooter, could be a telling factor if he plays. So, too, fellow midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson.
Skilful schoolboy midfielder Andre Lewis is also in Jamaica's squad, but the 'veteran' of last year's Under-17 FIFA World Cup has never played at the senior level. It appears unlikely Lewis will make his debut.
"We cannot lay on (Lewis) a huge responsibility in the senior team," a cautious Montesso said of the 18-year-old St George's College Manning Cup captain.
Jamaica will also need to defend well as a team. With Phillips' return, the back four should be more balanced. But the onus will be on the Boyz to keep ball possession and the pressure off the backline.
Despite their dismal record against Jamaica, Guatemala should enter tonight's game full of confidence, especially following home and away wins against Antigua & Barbuda on September 7 (3-1) and 11 (1-0). Again they will lean on captain Carlos Ruiz, a crafty, veteran striker who scored three times in the two games against Antigua & Barbuda.
Fellow striker Dwight Pezzarossi has scored twice, including the late free kick against Jamaica, in this qualifying round. Marco Pappa, whose free kick helped Guatemala earn a late draw against the US here in June, is also dangerous. But the home team will miss injured Alejandro Galindo, a creative midfielder who also started the first leg against Jamaica.
A victory for Jamaica tonight would be huge. The onus, however, will be on the Boyz not to lose.