Summer is winding down, but for supporters of the Canadian National Team things are just beginning to heat up. It has been almost three long months since their last matches against Cuba and Honduras and a lost opportunity at home to earn three points has left the team and fans desperate to make amends. Up against Panama Friday night, without question this is Canada's most important game of the round. A win can put them top of the group and in a solid position to advance to the final round of World Cup Qualifying.
Panama has an ace up their sleeve and that is already having gone to a tough environment in Honduras and beating the Catrachos 2-0. Canada will know all too well that since the 2011 Gold Cup Panama is a team to be reckoned with and despite not having any big international names on their roster, cannot be taken for granted. Their strikeforce is one of the best in CONCACAF and is supported by a very athletic and quick midfield.
Canada has slowly ascended to this point and since their last game, most of their key players have established themselves in their club side and are performing every week. Panama might have the recent results but Canada should have the confidence player for player that they are the better side. Stephen Hart just needs to ensure they are all pulling in the same direction, and come Saturday morning Canada should be in a strong position atop Group C.
Canada comes into this game with excitement not felt in years. Their last time they were at this point of qualifying, back in 2008, the team was essentially out of the picture for the Hex, having come away with only one point in two home games, and with Mexico still to come on the schedule. This go 'round, Canada won a hard-fought game in Havana, Cuba for critical away points, but disappointingly were unable capitalize on an out-of-form Honduras back in Toronto.
Sitting on four points, and hosting Panama Friday night, the Canucks are primed to move into the pole position in Group C. However, it won't be easy as Panama have emerged as one of the top sides in Central America and giving everyone a run for their money in recent competitions. Stephen Hart targeted Panama as one of the best teams in CONCACAF prior to the 2011 Gold Cup and his assessment of the team was accurate as they made a statement in the tournament beating the United States and getting a point from Canada to win the group stage.
Losing out to Panama in the summer of 2011 might prove to deliver the right mentality and approach needed in this anticipated rematch. There no question Hart or Canada are not taking this opponent for granted, and after a disappointing 0-0 draw in their last encounter with Honduras will not want to let an extra two points slip through their fingers. While many bemoaned the lost opportunity, it arguably might have put them in the right mindset to not be overconfident heading into this match and underline the importance of this game finishing with a win.
Fortunately for Hart, against a predicted tough opponent, most of his key players are in fine form and competing week in week out for their club teams. Front to back, there should be no glaring weak links in the starting line-up with even some debate as to who should get the nod in either the attack or midfield. Olivier Occean will most likely start up top and his ability to run onto the ball and physically assert himself will be an asset to balance off the smaller and more technical options of Simeon Jackson, Tosaint Ricketts and Dwayne De Rosario.
Against Honduras, Atiba Hutchinson returned to the fold and added a dynamic option in the midfield of being able to hold onto the ball and provide cutting runs that freed up the attack for him to slot the ball onto. Hutchinson's quality will be critical to Canada's influence in the midfield as whoever else remains, most likely Will Johnson, Julian De Guzman or Patrice Bernier, will be responsible for applying pressure and winning balls back.
As noted, it was back in early 2011 that Hart singled out Panama as the team to watch going into the Gold Cup. He was dead on as they dispatched the United States and exited the group in first place. They would ultimately lose their rematch to the US in the Semi-Finals but made a statement that they have arrive as one of the top side in CONCACAF.
Their ascent further proves, at least in this region, how important a domestic league can be to providing a foundation for a national team program. From a club standpoint, MLS, Mexico, Costa Rica and even Honduras have more prestige, but Panama is closing the gap and their results support that.
Without question the players Canada needs to watch out for is Luis Tejada and Blas Perez. Both have shouldered the load and delivered big time for their country with Tejada especially making his mark over the last two years. Perez on the other hand, has already notched a brace in Panama's first group game against Honduras. However, in those games, as well as the Gold Cup, their performances were only as good as a quick and tricky group of midfielders who, if Canada does not assert themselves from the get go, can take over the game. The 2-0 win in Honduras back in June should serve notice to Canada that Panama are perfectly capable of walking into a hostile environment and leaving with all the goods.
A measured confidence for Canada will be essential in this game. They haven't accomplished anything yet, but should recognize as a group are peaking and this could be their time to emerge as a legitimate contender in CONCACAF. Player for player, Canada looks to be the better side, but Panama is the team who of late has made more noise. It might seem obvious but as the saying goes, there can be no passengers, but from who is available, that seems unlikely. What this will come down to for Canada is finishing. Occean, Jackson and Ricketts are the first ones to look to, but Dwayne De Rosario has had his chances so far in this round and simply put they all need to finish their first chance, not fourth or fifth.
In the End
Last time around, this third game of the third round was nothing more than going through the motions and finishing out the games. Now four years later, a home and away with Panama will all but determine whether or not Canada advances to the Hex. Panama have emerged as a force in CONCACAF and deserved favourite to advance, but Canada look to be coming together at the right time. Front to back players are featuring with their club sides and for once fitness is not an issue, as well as form. Stephen Hart simply needs to get the right message across and formulate the right approach to implement authority in their home field. Canada has alot going their way into this match, and with the importance of finishing and not repeating the Honduras game, but also 2008, the team will go on to Panama top of Group C.
Canada 2 – 1 Panama