Canada took the three points that they needed to take at home. They took over top spot in the group at the midway point and they put Panama squarely in the sights of Honduras for that second spot in group play. Now if they want to hold on to that spot at the top of the group they are going to have to put in their most impressive performance of the qualifying cycle. A repeat of Friday night probably won't be enough to get the job done as Canada cannot count on sneaking another quick goal. Canada will have to be focused, disciplined, and clinical in front of goal.
Since Canada arrived in Panama the opposition fans have been doing everything possible to throw them off their game. From reports of witch doctors to loud street parties during the night that are intended to disrupt the team the fans are pulling out all the stops to try and help their team gain an edge. The attempts to get Canada off their game won't end when the match kicks off either. The Panamanian players will certainly resort to many of the same antics and ploys that they employed at BMO Field on Friday night but on their home field they may lay it on even thicker. In a hostile environment the ref might just end up buying a lot of it because simply put, this is CONCACAF after all.
With all that said, Canada has to be at their best to get anything out of the game and will have to show even more discipline than they did on Friday. Getting in the refs face frequently will not help their cause, responding to antics of Panama with stupid fouls and pushing and shoving will only result in unneeded cautions, and stooping to their level will mean Canada getting away from their own game. If Canada wants to stand a chance they have to stick to the game plan, control the tempo of the game, and make the most of the few chances they are able to create.Hart will be forced to make a couple of changes from the lineup he used on Friday night as Olivier Occean has returned to Germany with an injury and Will Johnson to Real Salt Lake as he is suspended due to card accumulation. It seems likely that he will bring Patrice Bernier or Nik Ledgerwood into the starting lineup as a like-for-like replacement in the midfield and then bring in Marcel de Jong to provide some more width to the team. If he does go with those changes it would mean Canada really packing a lot of bodies into the midfield and possibly using more of a 4-4-1-1 formation.
The big question is what will Hart do up front with his only real target striker now unavailable. Yes, Simeon Jackson was not at his best when used on the wing but he has also struggled to make an impact against the big centre backs of many CONCACAF sides. Going with Jackson up front also means that Canada will have to make some tactical changes to work with his pace rather than hitting it forward to him to win using size and strength. The other option is to bring Tosaint Ricketts into the starting lineup and take advantage of the fact that he has a better blend of size and pace to lead the attack. Either way though, Canada is going to have to provide more support and play the ball to feet more often.
If Hart does go with de Jong it would mean he would be able to cover the left wing in the midfield. That would free Dwayne De Rosario to move more central and act more like a support striker than he has in recent matches. It is a position that is better suited to DeRo who can work on quick one-two passes and getting off quick shots rather than having to work to beat his man on the dribble and cut inside all the time.
The likely changes will almost certainly make for a crowded middle of the pitch for Canada but that would make sense considering that it is the strongest area of Hart's squad. He has the players to control the middle of the park and use that to dictate possession and the tempo of the game so it would make sense to play to those strengths. Canada is not a team that can play an open style and go blow for blow with the top teams in the region so focusing on a compact disciplined approach is the best bet.
So it would seem the likely lineup will look like this:
The good news for Canada is that if they go with that lineup they are bringing a whole lot of experience into the game. Most of the players in the lineup have been there and seen it all when it comes to what goes on in CONCACAF so any of these antics from fans or opposing players should really just be old news by now. There is no reason to think that Canada can't deal with anything that Panama has to throw at them. Just dealing with it may not be enough though.
The worrying stat is that even though Canada is top of their group and have not conceded a competitive goal since the first game of last round of World Cup Qualifying against Saint Lucia they have been held off the score sheet three times and twice have only scored one goal in nine qualifying matches. The issues to score and find consistent play up front is nothing new for Canada but with only two goals in their three matches so far this year it is in danger of coming to the forefront once again. If Canada continues to keep clean sheets, which is clearly their focus, then they have a chance but if/when they do concede a goal things could get interesting.
Panama won't have much to lose in this match and will almost certainly come out focused on three points and nothing less. They are likely to go with the lineup they finished the game with on Friday night which is very much an attacking unit intended to score goals early and often with Blas Perez leading the line. If Canada finds a way to deal with that attack then the chances will come from them on the counter. The other key for Canada will be to avoid giving up set pieces in dangerous areas of the field. It almost cost them on Friday and is a dangerous game to play against a team of Panama's quality.
It will take a memorable performance by Canada to get the job done and the odds are clearly against them playing on the road in a hostile environment but there is no reason to believe they cannot get at least a single point out of this game or even better all three points which would put them on the verge of qualifying for the Hex. And as we all love to sing...Let's go to the Hex, Oh Baby, Let's go to the Hex!