Canada Sprints Towards the FIFA 2022 World Cup Qatar
The race to qualify for the FIFA 2022 World Cup Qatar is drawing to a close. The remaining eight CONCACAF teams are locked in battle in the final round of the North, Central American and Caribbean qualification tournament. The second matchday of the January window saw the continent’s most improved football team of 2021, Canada, triumph over North America’s top team, the USA. Football giant Mexico also struggled through Matchday Two, making little or no impact against a highly organised Costa Rica. And, a late contender at the top rungs of the standings, Panama continued to claw their way towards the automatic qualification spots with a home win over Jamaica.
The break’s initial matchday results have given Canada a considerable boost to their qualification dreams. The first-placed Canadian squad are now four points ahead of both second-placed USA and third-placed Mexico and five points ahead of Panama, who sit in fourth.
With only four matches remaining in the qualification competition, the top three teams will earn direct spots at the 2022 tournament. The fourth-placed team will enter the inter-confederation playoffs in June for a last chance at qualifying.
The USA, Mexico and Panama will have a tough fight on their hands over the final four matchdays. With a single goal difference separating them, and Panama, on a single point behind and breathing down their necks, the USA and Mexico will need to hit the field with all guns blazing to ensure they hold onto their automatic qualification spots.
So, how did the action go down on Matchday Two?
Canada and the USA were first to hit the turf on the second matchday of the break. With just a single point separating them, both teams needed the win to gain the advantage. Canada, who rose from 70th in the world rankings last year to 40th, entered the game unbeaten in the previous fourteen qualifying matches. The USA entered the field as the top CONCACAF team and 11th in the world. However, despite the USA’s domination on the ball, they lacked the dynamism to break down the Canadians and finish any of the multiple chances they created.
The Canadians played some very confident and tactically aware football, defending well and taking advantage of the Americans' mistakes. The Canadians opened the 2-0 game with a goal in the first seven minutes. The wind held up a goal kick from the USA's keeper Matt Turner, a quick-thinking Kamil Miller headed the ball back into play for the Canadians before the Stars and Stripes players could react. Canada's Cyle Larin and Jonathon Osorio then opened the US defence with some one-to-one passing before Larin smashed the ball home. The USA responded with increased pressure, but generated relatively little for their efforts, apart from a powerful header from a corner kick by Weston McKenzie, which would have equalled the playing field had Canada's keeper, Milan Borjan, not made a timely save. Canada upped the attacking ante in the second half and made multiple goal attempts. The USA's keeper made some decent back-to-back saves to keep the scoreline low, but he couldn't prevent The Red's Sam Adekugbe from booting home a second goal for Canada in the dying minutes of the game.
Canada could qualify early for the World Cup, for the first time since 1986, if they beat El Salvador on Matchday Three of the break. The USA will need to win against last-placed Honduras to recover points and hold Mexico and Panama off.
Against Costa Rica, Mexico needed to take advantage of the USA’s loss. A win would have secured a second-place spot on the table. It would also have given the Mexicans a small breathing space with a two-point lead over the Americans and a four-point gap between themselves and Panama. However, Costa Rica played a highly offensive game and gave the El Tri little or no room for manoeuvre. While the Mexicans had the majority of time on the ball, they struggled to create viable opportunities that weren't smothered by Costa Rica and seemed to lack creativity when they did attack. Rogelio Funes Mori did manage to strike the back of the net for Mexico in the first half, but the goal was disallowed when he was deemed offside. Otherwise, Mexico only managed to hit the woodwork twice. After a goalless draw, Mexico stayed in third position on eighteen points, behind the USA on a single goal difference. Costa Rica improved their qualification chances for the playoffs, moving just four points behind Panama.
Mexico faces Panama in their next bout of the tournament. A win for either would place them in a much more tenable position for automatic qualification. Costa Rica will be up against Jamaica and need a win to continue their rise in the standings to close the gap on the top four and distance themselves from the bottom three.
Panama took on Jamaica at home and enjoyed a hard-fought 3-2 victory over the Reggae Boyz. The Jamaicans entered the field, having not beaten Panama in any qualifiers since 2013. So, a penalty goal from Jamaica's Michail Antonio within the first five minutes of the game may have given the Panamanians something to think about. Indeed, Panama rallied after the opening goal and increased the pressure on their opponents, resulting in their own penalty kick. Fortunately for Jamaica, their keeper Andre Blake made the save. It wasn't until the final minutes of the first half that Panama managed to equalise, which, unfortunately for Jamaica, came from an own-goal. An attempted clearance from Blake, off of a cross from Panama's Yoel Barrenas, glanced teammate Javain Brown's head and was tipped over the line. Panama upped the ante in the second half and was rewarded with a second goal from a rebound, struck home by Eric Davis. Their lead was extended in the 68th as substitute Anibal Mello blasted the ball to the back of the net. Jamaica's Andre Gray pulled one back for the Reggae Boyz but too late in the day to make much difference to the final outcome. Panama's win strengthened their position in fourth place and put them just a single point behind the USA and Mexico.
Panama faces Mexico in their next qualifiers contest; they will undoubtedly be keen to capitalise on their position. A win would see the Panamanians leapfrog over their rivals into an automatic qualification spot. At the very least, a draw would see them on an equal footing. Jamaica are up against Costa Rica, with a home crowd behind them; a win would help lift them off of the bottom rungs in the standings.
Honduras and El Salvador met at the Olimpico Metropolitano stadium in Honduras’ San Pedro Sula. Facing a home crowd, the Hondurans came out fighting, repeatedly threatening El Salvador's goal. Indeed, Los Catrachos dominated the ball for much of the match and created the most chances, but they failed to convert. Despite their comparatively minimal time on the ball, El Salvador put up a robust defence and was quick to respond on the counter. In the end, a feint from Nelson Bonilla, sending the Honduran keeper the wrong way, resulted in the opening goal being booted home 35 minutes into the game. Neither Honduras nor El Salvador managed to increase the tally for the rest of the ninety-minute match. However, in the dying minutes of stoppage time, Darwin Ceren struck the back of the net to end the game for El Salvador's with two goals to none. El Salvador finished the day in sixth place on nine points. Honduras stayed in last place on three points.
Honduras and El Salvador would both need a minor miracle to make any real impact on the standings in the next four matches. However, in football, the unexpected can happen…
The standings after Matchday 2 of the January break:
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