Theodore Whitmore has seen the goal posts constantly moved since it was announced that his Reggae Boyz would tackle Saudi Arabia in back-to-back friendlies.
The Jamaica head coach has been dealt plenty of obstacles for the pair of matches against the hosts, which kick-off on Saturday (14 November, 11.30am Jamaican time) and conclude next Tuesday.
But are Whitmore’s troops fully prepared for battle against the FIFA world no.67 side, ranked just 19 places below the Boyz, at the imposing Prince Faisal bin Fahad Stadium in Riyadh? Since Whitmore named an attack-minded 24-strong squad for the trek to western Asia, he lost a trio of players – one seeking to sign for a new club and a duo sidelined because of coronavirus fears.
Veteran centre back Adrian Mariappa opted to stay in England to sort out a new team after being discarded by Watford, and today (11 November) signed for ambitious Championship outfit Bristol City. Forward Chavany Willis, on loan from Portmore United at Pennsylvania-based Philadelphia Union II in the USL Championship, was his late replacement.
Defender Alvas Powell and Humble Lions FC’s goalkeeper Dennis Taylor were unable to travel to Asia because of positive coronavirus tests, replaced by Kingston-born duo of midfielder Tyreek Magee (Eupen, Belgium) and shotstopper Jeadine White.
Powell, based in the United States, could not join the Boyz as a team-mate at his MLS club of Inter Miami FC tested positive for COVID-19 so meant that the 26-year-old was deemed a health risk.
Cavalier FC’s White, who has made two appearances for the Boyz since making his 2018 international debut as an 18-year-old, stepped in as a like for like swap for 30-year-old Taylor who tested positive for COVID-19.
Taylor, one of five island-based players that spent their time in quarantine at the UWI-JFF Captain Horace Burrell Centre of Excellence in Kingston prior to departure, got his positive test back while travelling en route to Saudi Arabia from Kingston to Miami, USA. He has been ordered to isolate in London before being permitted to return to Jamaica.
And over the weekend Jamaica’s established and respected Sunday Gleaner newspaper claimed in an exclusive article that the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) had averted a potential strike by the Boyz in a dispute over money.
The article stated that the Boyz had threatened not to take the field for the pair of games if the JFF did not agree to the compensation package of US$2,000 each that the squad were demanding. It is understood that the JFF originally offered only half of that sum, but backtracked to agree to meet the pay demands.
Money is virtually no issue in the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where strict COVID-19 protocols have been enforced among their population of 35 million. There has been over 350,000 reported cases of coronavirus, with a recovery rate of 96.2 per cent.
Whitmore has half-a-dozen key players still absent, with their arrival due within the next 36 hours. As a result that leaves them with little time to tackle the compulsory quarantine as well as receive their coronavirus results from the local health authorities.
With such stringent regulations in place in Saudi Arabia severely limits Whitmore’s plans for the opening encounter. Until these late arrivals have returned negative results they will not be permitted to engage in any training sessions.
The six players yet to arrive for the friendlies comprise Leon Bailey (Bayern Leverkusen, Germany), Bobby Decordova-Reid (Fulham, England), Javon East (Santos, Costa Rica), Oniel Fisher (DC United, USA), Michael Hector (Fulham, England) and White.
Those players who arrived earlier this week will undertake COVID-19 tests today, with Whitmore and his technical team hoping that there will be no more spanners thrown into the works ahead of just two training sessions before Saturday’s contest.
The Boyz registered a highly respectable 2019 record of eight victories, a trio of draws and just three defeats. Yet Jamaica became heavily reliant on Belgium-based striker Shamar Nicholson, their shining star in front of goal ended last year with seven strikes to finish as their top scorer. Whitmore has recognised this flaw, so has shuffled his pack to bolster the attacking options from midfield and upfront.
Saudi Arabia, who have yet to play competitively this year, breezed past the Boyz with an emphatic 5-2 home success when they last met three years ago. The hosts rely on a solid passing game with skilful players throughout their squad. Their possession tactics and neat passing often frustrates opponents, and has served them well in more recent times.
If the Boyz lose their cool in the sweltering heat of Riyadh, which is likely to be warmer than Kingston but certainly a lot less humid, by becoming increasing frustrated by the hosts then Whitmore has his work cut out.
The Boyz tend to be a physical team who like to keep the ball at their feet, but can suddenly use their athleticism and pace to attack opponents.
Whitmore is going have to prove that he is a master tactician with his troops, and to get them firing on full cylinders in the opening encounter is no easy task, although he should have more players available for the second match next week.
Jamaica squad: Jahshaun Anglin (Harbour View FC), Leon Bailey (Bayern Leverkusen, Germany), Norman Campbell (RFK Grafičar Beograd, Serbia), Bobby Decordova-Reid (Fulham, England), Javon East (Santos, Costa Rica), Oniel Fisher (DC United, USA), Junior Flemmings (Phoenix Rising FC, USA), Michael Hector (Fulham, England), Daniel Johnson (Preston North End, England), Amal Knight (San Diego Loyal, USA), Kevon Lambert (Phoenix Rising FC, USA), Kemar Lawrence (Anderlecht, Belgium), Gregory Leigh (Aberdeen, Scotland), Damion Lowe (Phoenix Rising FC, USA), Tyreek Magee (Eupen, Belgium), Kemal Malcolm (Arnett Gardens FC), Dwayne Miller (Syrianska, Sweden), Ricardo Morris (Vaasan Palloseura, Finland), Ravel Morrison (ADO Den Haag, Holland), Shamar Nicholson (R. Charleroi SC, Belgium), Kaheem Parris (NK Krka, Slovenia), Lamar Walker (Portmore United), Jeadine White (Cavalier FC), Chavany Willis (Philadelphia Union II).
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