Feel the anticipation? The excitement at the sense of occasion? That little growing knot of nervousness you have that something important's about to happen, you have no control over it, but you have to live and die through the whole thing anyway? Yes TFC fans, you may have forgotten about this feeling, but this is a game that matters. Seriously matters. It's not a must win of course, but really, to all intents and purposes it is.
Going into this round of qualification, Stephen Hart talked about 12 points as his target. That may be what's needed, maybe 10 would be enough to do the trick, but the big fixture looming over the whole round is that 6th game, away in Honduras. Hands up who's confident that if Canada need a result of some kind going into that game that they'll be able to go down there, take everything that Concacaf has to give them and come back with that result. Didn't think so.
The formula was obvious. Win all 3 home games, get something, somewhere, probably in Cuba on the road, and you should be good to go. They overcame the conditions in Cuba to get 3 points there, and given Honduras lost to Panama, they had a chance to step on their throats and really take control of their destiny. Sadly the home game ended 0-0 and so it's Canada 4 points Honduras 1 as opposed to 6-0.
A win here would by no means guarantee a stress free trip to San Pedro Sula in October of course, but that tie against Honduras is really the only slip up Canada can allow themselves at home. Tie, or heaven forbid lose this game, and they'll more than likely need to win another away game, in Panama or Honduras.
As for Stephen Hart, he wasn't downplaying the importance, saying here, "The game at home against arguably the best team in the group is extremely important" with Julian de Guzman going as far as to say it's "pretty much the most important game of the group stage, it's mandatory we get 3 points".
So, no pressure then. The importance of 3 points is established, can Canada get them against 'the best team in the group'? Sure they can. Yes Panama have 6 points so far, including a 2-0 win in Honduras, but they followed that up by barely scraping past Cuba at home. Yes Panama got to the semi finals of the 2011 Gold Cup, but they needed an injury time equaliser, a pretty weak one at that to sneak a tie against Canada in the group stage. So they're talented, that best in the group label is very believable, but they're certainly beatable.
The key to that, obviously enough is that Canada needs to score. They've been impressively solid in defence over the last year or so, starting with the game in Puerto Rico on September 6th 2011, if you don't include the game with a weakened squad against Armenia, they've got 9 straight clean sheets.
The defence that has done so well recently, David Edgar, Andre Hainault, Kevin McKenna and Ante Jazic seem to have overcome injury scares and should be ready to go again. There's even reinforcements available depending on what Hart wants to do, in the form of Marcel de Jong. A year or so ago and Canadian supporters were fretting about de Jong's absence and wondering how the defence would be reshaped to cover his loss. Now, well he's an option if Hart wants to go with a more attacking full back, with some even musing he could potentially play on the left wing.
I'm fairly certain we'll see the same back 4, with Lars Hirschfeld again behind them (don't fuck up again Lars, please.), at least to start the game. In Blas Perez and Luis Tejada Panama have a couple of dangerous strikers so Hart will be looking to keep things tight at the back. De Jong can always be brought on later if we need to press for a goal.
There's a good chance that we will be in that situation as goals have been difficult to come by. One goal was enough to beat Cuba, and then the two home games this spring both finished 0-0. Not terrible results by any means, and certainly two decent performances, but at some point chances have got to be taken, whether it's Olivier Occean again, or Dwayne de Rosario finally breaking Dale Mitchell's record that he's been close to for seemingly ages now. He's certainly due a goal to mirror his MLS scoring abilities, it's been a long long time since he scored a goal other than from a penalty, tonight would be a great time to start.
There's been plenty of Canadians in goal scoring form for their clubs, including Simeon Jackson with Norwich who's one of the possible changes up front for Canada. I'd put money on Occean as the centre forward with de Rosario on the left, but in the previous games, it's been Tosaint Ricketts as the wide right striker, or even as we saw against Honduras, Nick Ledgerwood, in a slightly more cautious formation. Ricketts of course has been stuck in a contractual limbo, so hasn't actually been playing club football so far this European season. Will that be reason enough for Jackson to be given the start ahead of him?
In those last 3 games, Jackson proved an effective late game sub for Occean, using his speed against a defence tired from battling the more physical Occean. He's another who never quite managed to find his club scoring form when wearing Red, a frustrating pattern that at least one of them will need to change for Canada to make it anywhere.
The forecast calls for rain tonight, with the chance of thunderstorms, which could well give the night an extra dose of epicness if things go well. Rain always seems to make the supporters bring it just a little bit more, and if you're looking for good Canada related omens, September 7th just 2 years ago, Canada beat Honduras in Montreal amid heavy rain and a lightning delay.
Hopefully they can repeat that feat today, a win would be a big step towards qualification, putting Canada temporarily on top of the group, and at least maintaining that 3 point lead over Honduras, depending on how they do earlier in the day against Cuba. A loss, and things would get very very difficult from here.
It's tense. I need a drink. It's good to care about a game again.