Michail Antonio scored another sensational goal to earn rejuvenated Jamaica a precious CONCACAF World Cup qualifying point against bitter rivals USA in Kingston tonight (16 November).
The burly striker cancelled out Timothy Weah’s 11th-minute strike, and it was Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz who came closest to snatching a late victory inside the National Stadium.
With the first half of Jamaica’s World Cup qualifying campaign having resulted in just one triumph from seven games, their hopes of reaching next year’s finals in Qatar seems to only be a dream rather than reality.
However, head coach Theodore Whitmore’s nightmares could become a distant memory after Antonio bagged his second international goal, which followed his remarkable strike in Honduras that ended in a 1-1 stalemate.
This new-found weapon of the veteran striker has instilled Whitmore and his troops with more belief despite only bagging seven points from eight qualifiers.
Whitmore has been the culprit for such a poor set of results. He has been playing many of his midfielders and forwards out of position. Against the United States he opted for a more traditional 4-3-3 formation, which was more than a match for one of the region’s leading sides.
Having failed to score in their precious two home games, Whitmore desperately needed to shake things up to not only save Jamaica’s Qatar 2022 bid but also to save his own skin. Jamaica fans have long been calling for him to be replaced, and he has been heavily criticised by former players.
As usual Whitmore reverted to his usual transparent tactics of stifling the opposition in the first half, throw on a triple substitution midway through the second half and then try to snatch a winner on the counterattack. This almost worked for a change, only for Damion Lowe’s late effort to be disallowed.
It did help the hosts that they had a bumpy pitch and that they had 5,000 vaccinated fans inside the stadium.
Whitmore’s inspired choice upfront, which comprised a trio of English-based players – Antonio flanked by Aston Villa ace Leon Bailey and Fulham forward Bobby Decordova-Reid – made the contest more palatable than recent displays.
Yet the US were allowed to make the sort of dream start that pundits expected.
The visitors grabbed an early lead after Weah drove the ball into a packed penalty area, following a neat one-two with Ricardo Pepi. His angled effort, which looked more like a cross than a shot, hit the upright before finding the back of the net to send the home fans onto stunned silence.
But the stadium erupted for the first time in years when the spectators were treated to seeing 31-year-old English Premier League star Antonio score for the first time in Kingston.
Having powered his way from the halfway line before cleverly chipping the Honduras keeper in his last outing, Antonio proved that was no fluke with a further breathtaking goal.
He calmed collected the ball way outside the penalty box, some 25 yards out, then unleashed an unstoppable shot past Manchester City’s back-up shotstopper Zack Steffen for a resplendent 22nd-minute equaliser.
Steffen, who made key saves in Friday’s shocking 2-0 success over Mexico, at least made amends to snuff out any goal threats from Jamaica.
But even Steffen could not prevent Lowe’s late header from finding the back of the net. However, this effort was ruled out for a foul.
This dubious decision was a cruel call for a very much improved team performance by the Boyz, who tackle six more World Cup qualifiers and desperately require points to finish in the top four berths from the eight-team nations.
Whitmore rallied his troops for the US showdown and for lengthy periods the Boyz dictated play. But they were unable to turn their superiority into goals, which has been an on-going problem.
It is goals that the Boyz have lacked throughout this campaign, which leaves their hopes of reaching the World Cup finals for only the second time in their history in severe jeopardy.
Although the brilliance of Antonio’s goals has twice rescued Whitmore from potentially getting the boot, his involvement may have come too late to salvage Jamaica’s Qatar 2022 dream.
The finger of blame for Jamaica’s precarious position, after their final World Cup qualifier this year, will undoubtedly be pointed by the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) and fans alike at Whitmore.
Whether he will remain at the helm for the next two matches, against Mexico and Panama respectively, remains to be seen.
The JFF worked tirelessly to ensure his squad boasts some of Jamaica’s best talents for some years, and over the next month a decision will be made whether to stick with Whitmore or take an expensive risk by bringing in a more astute coach that will almost guarantee success.
Fans and pundits have long been calling for Whitmore to be replaced, although no viable names of suitable coaches have been voiced.
This distraction of Antonio’s incredible back-to-back goals may have saved Whitmore’s job, but more strikes are urgently required if there is even a glimmer of hope for the Boyz to scrape into the World Cup finals for the first time since 1998.
JAMAICA: Blake – Lawrence (Leigh, 46), Moore, Lowe, Brown – Walker (Morrison, 68), Williams, Watson (Grant, 68) – Bailey (Fisher, 88), Antonio, Reid (Flemming’s ,68). Subs: Powell, Burke, Nicholson, Miller, Mariappa, White.
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