Here it is finally, after the relative cakewalk through last year's qualifying group, and a surprisingly good result against the U.S, things are about to get serious for Canada and their hopes of continuing on to next year's Hex round and ideally a trip to Brazil in 2014. Before Tuesday's equally vital home game against Honduras, it of course starts this Friday in Havana, Cuba.
Stephen Hart talked earlier about needing 12 points to ensure the 2nd place position necessary to qualify,he may well be right, it may be a bit lower than that, but I'd say 10 is the absolute minimum that will get the job done. If we go with that 10-12 range, and the alarmingly presumptous thought that Canada will win it's home games as it needs to, that still leaves them needing to get points on the road, and this really is their best chance. Panama away will be a very very tough game, and just the thought of Canada needing points from it's final game, away at Honduras gives me a Concacaf induced sick feeling. Nope, unless they're going to take the ridiculously hard route, Canada needs to get something here, and the good thing is that it's very very possible.
Despite being one of the teams that qualified automatically for this group unlike Canada and Panama, Cuba are currently pretty terrible, and are now ranked well below Canada in the always relevant FIFA rankings. I'll not pretend to know all that much about the players, formations and tactics and all that, but a look at their gold cup run last year should be all we really need to know, 0 wins, 3 losses 16 goals conceded, Canada really should be coming out of this one with 3 points.
No away game is an easy one of course, and there's already been talk of the pitch being the worst that Kevin Mckenna has played on, and of course the game was curiously scheduled for 2pm, right when it should be hottest down there, and who knows exactly what refereeing adventures will need to be overcome. Recent history will also hopefully guard against overconfidence. The last time a Canada team got a good result against the U.S. back in March's under 23 tournament, Canada followed up a win over the states with a very underwhelming performance and a tie resulting from a last minute goal allowed, against, yes, Cuba.
Caveat's out of the way, Canada should be winning, but what sort of team and performance will we be seeing. I'd say something very similar to what we saw against the US team even though Cuba are nowhere near as talented. Lars Hirschfeld will be in goal again, and likely won't have too much to do. He made the saves he needed to make against US, as well as playing a very good game in general. Of course there's always the potential for something to go wrong with Lars, in that game he kept his mistakes down to one botched clearance that didn't come back to bite him, if he can again avoid a catastrophic error, then he'll more than likely have a clean sheet from this game too.
In front of him, the defence should be the same, I'd say Andre Hainault, Kevin McKenna and David Edgar are certain to start again. The only possible change is maybe Mike klukowski instead of Ante Jazic, who left sunday's game looking slightly hurt, and who was chosen for that game due to his increased familiarity with Landon Donovan. Either way, there's very very few problems they should have.
Ahead of them, Julian de Guzman and Will Johnson will continue their partnership, and whether Atiba Hutchinson or Nik Ledgerwood join them may be a good indication of how confident Stephen Hart is that the team that played on Sunday can do the job. Hutchinson missed that game with a minor tweak of the knee problem that cause him to miss so much time last year. He was talked about as being questionable, and made the trip to Cuba, but you've really got to think that the worst pitch ever isn't the place for a comeback. The last thing anyone needs is a stray pothole in the pitch causing further problems for such an important player. I think he'll be on the bench, to be used only if things aren't going well and the team needs a spark in the second half.
That's quite possible as though Nik Ledgerwood did a good job against the US, it was once again up front where Canada struggled. I'd expect Olivier Occean and Dwayne de Rosario to start again, though maybe Simeon Jackson will get in on the right wing ahead of Tosaint Ricketts. Whoever plays will have to be at their most lethal as there won't be a massive amount of chances coming their way. If Jackson gets the ball a couple of yards out again, let's hope he can put it in the back of the net this time as now there's actual points and meaning on the line. If Canada can't get on the board early, then Hutchinson's knee may have to be risked for the sake of the added quality he would bring to the midfield.
A draw here would be disappointing but wouldn't be deadly to Canada's chances, I think they'll be looking at getting a minimum of 4 points from these 2 games given the two tough games home and away to Panama coming up in September, so a tie away from home wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, though it would put serious pressure on them to get a win on Tuesday against Honduras. If they can get a win though, and follow it up with a win on Tuesday, then 6 points right off the bat would mean they'd be halfway towards the target set by Hart, and well on their way to going to the Hex, oh baby!