Tough clash - Boyz face Panama in World Cup Qualifier
REGISTERING victory will be the prime target for Jamaica's senior men's national football team when they tackle Panama in a Group B CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying (WCQ) match at the National Stadium tonight, beginning at 9 p.m.
The match is one of six in the Fourth Round (Semi-finals) series, which consists of three groups of four, from which the top two will advance to the six-nation (Hexagonal) to make the ultimate challenge for places at the 2018 Finals in Russia.
Reggae Boyz head coach Winfried Schäfer has rounded up close to his strongest squad for the match, with practically all the players who participated in their successful summer campaigns at the Copa America and the CONCACAF Gold Cup at hand.
"Panama plays good against Jamaica in the past. Now we have to change this. We've to win. But it's not easy," said Schäfer, who will not be on the bench owing to a one-match ban by FIFA for a verbal spat with match officials after winning in Nicaragua.
"From the first minute, we've to control the match. This will not be easy. We have to find a way to do what we've to do in the match. The players have to be intelligent," the 65-year-old German reasoned.
No time to rest
In the South American championship, they lost 1-0 in group games all the time despite playing well against Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, teams loaded with world-class players.
Against regional rivalry, they created history by advancing to the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time. They lost 3-1 against Mexico.
However, this is not a time to rest on laurels. Jamaica were given a harsh reminder in
third-round clashes against Nicaragua as they faced elimination following a 2-3 home loss on September 5. In the return clash in Managua, thanks to Simon Dawkins' goal at the death, they beat the Central Americans 2-0 to prevail 4-3 on aggregate.
Had Dawkins not scored and Jamaica won 1-0 to even up the scoring aggregate 3-3, the Jamaicans would have been knocked out of 2018 WCQ by way of the away goals rule.
Matches at this stage promise to be more difficult in what can be considered the Group of Death (toughest group) as all the teams, on current form, are among the strongest in the confederation.
Costa Rica, quarter-finalists in last year's World Cup Finals in Argentina, and Haiti, both made the Gold Cup quarter-finals, while Panama, though playing from the first half and through extra-time with 10 players, lost 1-0 to a last-minute controversial penalty against Mexico in the semi-finals.
"Our group is very strong ... all four teams can go in the next round," Schäfer observed," noting the reason they would be hunting an early advantage in the qualification.
"It's very important for the players to go to a Haiti with a win," he said.
The fact that their number 10 player, Luis Tejada, was sent off against Mexico, though controversially as well, tells another story about the Panamanians. They play very hard and fight, literally, tooth and nail, never giving up. This makes them very hard to beat.
Tejada is still unavailable as he is serving a two-match ban. In the interim, their goal hunt will be led by Roberto Nurse and Armando Cooper.
Jamaica's Reggae Boyz have experienced Panama's toughness all the time, with both teams notching two victories apiece and sharing four draws in their past eight encounters, dating back to September 2004.
Their closeness is also reflected by their rankings - Jamaica at 61 and Panama 65.
Neither has ever won by more than one goal, and when they last met for WCQ, in 2013, the results were 0-0 in Panama and 1-1 at the National Stadium. Other matches that may have included current players saw Panama winning 1-0 at 'The Office', before the Boyz exacted revenge with a 2-1 victory in Panama City. That was in 2012.
"It's a very strong team. We have to concentrate 100 per cent and fight and be disciplined on the field," the Jamaican coach noted as he called for crowd support.
"I hope the stadium is full. That is important."
Now, as far as team building for these crucial WCQ matches, the Boyz are at a delicate stage. They appeared to have built a very good defensive system through Copa and the Gold Cup, but some key players were missing against Nicaragua and especially in the first game, when it all went to pieces.
Now, captain Rodolph Austin is back to partner Je-Vaughn Watson in central midfield, as well as influential flank midfielders Joel (Jobi) McAnuff and Garath McCleary, plus Wes Morgan, the Leicester City captain and defence line leader. As they have been playing together in competition for some time, they make for a stronger and more understanding system of defence.
Others complementing that sector are Adrian Mariappa, an offensive threat at times, and Michael Hector, who was unnecessarily booed last occasion at the stadium.
Also among the defensive options is Alvas Powell, who is still being rewarded with a spot in the Jamaica team despite walking out on his country at the Gold Cup, following their match against El Salvador in Toronto nearly three months ago.
Offensively, the team has had problems scoring goals. With two per game against Nicaragua, they made fair improvements. It is also fair to predict that there will be need for better finishing as Panama are up a notch.
As far as scoring goes, and for the Jamaica team, Darren Mattocks is the man. He has scored one goal in the last four games for Jamaica - in both clashes against Nicaragua, against Mexico in the Gold Cup final, and against the United States in the semi-final.
Giles Barnes, his strike partner, has scored a couple but is also somewhat unlucky, with a number of his shots crashing into the goalposts or being saved. McCleary, McAnuff, and Simon Dawkins, who netted the spectacular life-saving goal against Nicaragua at the death, also numbers among the scoring options, which have a new recruit in Britain-based six-footer Clayton Donaldson.
"I'm happy about those players who played against Nicaragua," said Schäfer, adding that "Mariappa was a good leader".
He said they showed a lot of character, much of which will be needed to secure victory in tonight's challenge against hard-to-beat Panama.