Big Wins for CONCACAF’s Big Three at 2022 Qualifiers
After the first matchday of the January break, the three top North, Central American and Caribbean football teams, Canada, the USA and Mexico, have begun to pull away from the rest of the CONCACAF 2022 World Cup qualifying pack.
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.
Canada, who beat Honduras in their first match of the break, remains unbeaten. Their winning streak sees them maintain their top spot in the standings for automatic World Cup qualification. In their battle against El Salvador, the USA did just enough to earn the full three points from their initial match of the window. The win ensured that they remained in second place, just one point behind Canada. Mexico took a much-needed victory against Jamaica to secure their third-place spot, a single point behind the USA and two points behind Canada.
In fourth place, Panama's loss to Costa Rica on day one of the break stalled their chances of automatic qualification. Before the loss, they were level with Mexico on points, with just a goal difference of two separating the teams. The gap has widened to three points between the two.
The standings after day one of the January break:
|Costa Rica||POINTS12||GOAL DIFFERENCE0|
|El Salvador||POINTS6||GOAL DIFFERENCE-7|
Jamaica and Mexico were the first CONCACAF qualifier teams to take to the pitch this January. Despite Jamaica's home advantage, Mexico needed to win to soften the blow of its last two losses - El Tri lost out to both Canada and the USA in their previous qualifiers meeting in November '21. On the day, Mexico was the dominant team, but it was Jamaica who broke the deadlock in the second half. Down to ten men, after a foul by Daniel Lowe earned him a red card, the Jamaicans rallied, and Daniel Johnson slotted in the first goal in the 50th minute of the game. Though they created numerous chances, Mexico didn't manage to equalise until the 81st minute when substitute Henry Martin booted in a rebound. With confidence restored, the Mexicans increased the pressure on the Jamaican goal and scored the winning goal just two minutes later. A low, powerful shot past the Jamaican keeper from Alexis Vega gave Mexico a 2-1 win and relieved some of the pressure on their qualification position in the standings.
The USA took on El Salvador at home during their opening match of the January break. While the US team dominated the ball, they struggled to finish any of the chances they created in the first half. However, the squad’s slow start turned around after half-time when they began to look more dangerous. The crucial and only goal of the match came in the 52nd minute. A shot from the USA’s Tim Weah, stopped by El Salvador's keeper Mario Gonzalez, came down in the middle of the box. US striker, Jesus Ferreira, headed the rebound to teammate Antonee Robinson, who smashed the ball into the back of the net. The single goal ensured that the Stars and Stripes kept pace with the top tier of the qualifying pack and remained on track to take an automatic pass to the World Cup.
A determined Honduras hosted Canada in their initial match of the window. The two teams drew level at their previous qualifier meeting in September. With Canada's last win in Honduras a whopping thirty-seven years ago, the host would have been hoping for a victory and a chance to get off of the bottom rung of the standings. On the day, the Hondurans piled the pressure on their Canadian counterparts. However, within the first ten minutes of the game, a powerful shot from Canadian winger Tajon Buchanan was tapped home as an own-goal as Honduran Daniel Maldonado tried to block the strike. The Hondurans fought back, but a disciplined and clinical Canada managed to keep control and create a host of chances. In the 73rd minute, the winning goal came with a world-class effort from Canadian forward Jonathan David. Teammate Liam Fraser sent a long pass to David on the edge of the Honduran edge of the centre circle, which he controlled with his chest, headed forward and, when he caught up with it, chipped the ball over the goalkeeper and between the sticks. The victory over Honduras secured Canada's position at the top of the table ahead of the USA and Mexico.
Costa Rica and Panama battled one another in the jostling fight for a pass to the World Cup. Panama needed the win to keep pace with the table leaders and keep its dream of an automatic ticket to Qatar's World Cup in November. However, Costa Rica pulled out an unexpected win, causing Panama's rise in the standings to falter. After a goalless first half, Costa Rica's Bryan Ruiz pounced on a rebounded shot on the Panamanian goal in the 65th minute and slotted in the match-winner. After the loss, Panama remained in fourth on fourteen points. Fifth-placed Costa Rica closed the gap between the pair to two points. Jamaica sits in sixth, El Salvador in seventh and Honduras in eighth place.
Top dog Canada has a chance to book its place at the FIFA 2022 World Cup Qatar during the final matchdays of the current break. Suppose they can beat North American rivals, the USA on January 30th and El Salvador on February 3rd, and hope that Panama can do no better than a tie over two games, or Costa Rica a single win. In that case, they may score an early ticket. The 2022 tournament would see Canada at the event for the first time since 1986.
Whatever Canada's results over the next two games, it looks likely that they and the USA and Mexico will make the grade and win their automatic places at the World Cup. The question is whether Panama or Costa Rica can do enough to catch any of them, and who will do enough to win another chance at the inter-confederation playoffs.
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