Jamaica are moving forward with the belief that they can qualify for football’s pinnacle of the FIFA World Cup finals in November, and have handed former Reggae Boy Paul Hall a stiff task.
The 49-year-old, given temporary charge for their six CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, has a mountain to climb to get his troops moving into the top four from their current predicament of sixth in the eight-nation group.
To make matters even trickier for Hall, who moved to head coach from assistant last month, the mighty Mexicans are in Kingston this week for a titanic clash. The Boyz then travel to tackle Panama before hosting Costa Rica as the empty National Stadium in Kingston. Maximum points are demanded by fans and the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) alike, but the Boyz are not used to winning matches.
Hall finally announced his 23-strong selection for these World Cup qualifiers clashes, with at least two victories necessary to keep their dream alive about reaching Qatar 2022.
Michail Antonio, the burly West Ham United hot-shot, is the player that Hall will no doubt be relying on to cause problems as Jamaica must score goals if they want to win matches.
The striker will get his shot at glory when he tackles Mexico on Thursday. As the Jamaica government is dealing with the fourth wave of the COVID pandemic, the crucial clash will be played behind closed doors.
At least if the Boyz are suffering at the hands of the well-oiled Mexico machine, then the players will not have any spectators on their backs.
Hall has added a plethora of England-based players to his largely domestic-based squad, which crumpled after an initial half-hour of resilience to Peru last week to falter 3-0.
He has brought in no.1 choice shotstopper Andre Blake, a star in the MLS, who is expected to take the skipper’s armband and lead the side by example as usual.
Damion Lowe, also plying his trade in the United States, was the captain in Peru when they simply lacked creativity upfront. Hall has opted for eight top-class defenders as he aims to emulate Whitmore’s impressive defensive record. Whitmore was sacked despite an unbeaten run of four games, when the Boyz conceded just twice, because of his negative tactics and inability to pick up victories.
Lamar Walker and Devon Williams, Lowe’s team-mates at Inter Miami FC, are the only midfielders who play in the top-flight that leaves question marks over his selection for three vital matches. Aston Villa’s Leon Bailey was omitted as he is unavailable due to injury.
With half-a-dozen strikers at Hall’s disposal, the Boyz will not just rely on Antonio for goals with Cory Burke and Javon East scoring for fun at club level. Kemar Roofe, who competes in Scotland with Rangers, has been left out following recent injury struggles and a lack of match fitness.
Antonio is expected to spearhead the attack with a 4-3-3 or 4-3-1-2 formation. However, Antonio sometimes has off days for West Ham and even on his much-hyped debut he was hauled off after 70 minutes.
Jamaica’s advantage against Mexico is that they have incredible pace and physicality at their disposal, but they will be facing a side who have surprisingly faltered with back-to-back defeats. This has seen Mexico drop from top spot to third place in the eight-team table and, like Jamaica, they desperately need points too.
Mexico, one of only six nations to qualify for the FIFA World Cup finals since 1994, have canny coach Gerardo Martino aiming to get them back to winning ways. They visit Kingston before facing Costa Rica and Panama as the chase for automatic berths hots up.
Martino has set the cat among the pigeons with his latest squad for three massive matches. Belgian-based defender Gerardo Arteaga is back since his request to skip the Olympic tournament, along with the return of talented midfielders Erick Gutierrez (PSV Eindhoven, the Netherlands) and Diego Lainez (Betis, Spain).
It seems unthinkable to not have Mexico competing in the World Cup finals, so they will be ready for a battle against Jamaica.
Hall, promoted to steady the ship and stop the Boyz sinking any further, has these World Cup qualifiers to propel the nation into the top three automatic qualifying places in the table and show his worth.
Sitting on seven points, half of the number that third- and fourth-placed nations Mexico and Panama have respectively, means that Hall needs to pick up maximum points. Whitmore was brilliant at not losing games, but hopeless at winning them.
Whether Hall’s squad is strong enough to deal with the likes of Mexico remains to be seen. Should he manage to coax a shock success then facing Panama and Costa Rica will be a much easier task.
Three wins on the bounce would arguably be a miracle, but football can be an unpredictable sport and for players like Antonio this is probably the last chance saloon to reach a World Cup final.
In March things should be more straightforward for Jamaica as they tackle El Salvador and Honduras, the two teams who currently sit below them in the World Cup qualifying table. The Boyz are also set to face Canada, who by the time they clash could already be qualified and field an experimental team.
The Mexico match is a must-win to kick-off Hall’s qualifying campaign. A draw would be exactly what Whitmore would have probably ended up with, which is not good enough and why he was given the boot.
A defeat to Mexico is not quite curtains, but as good as because realistically to win the next five matches seems mission impossible. Winning qualifiers is the mission that Hall has chosen to accept, now he needs commanding displays and maximum points.
Andre Blake (Phildelphia Union, USA), Amal Knight (Arnett Gardens, Jamaica), Dwayne Miller (Eskilstuna City, Sweden)
Javain Brown (Vancouver Whitecaps, Canada), Kemar Lawrence (Toronto FC, Canada), Gregory Leigh (Morecambe, England), Damion Lowe (Inter Miami CF, USA), Adrian Mariappa (Macarthur FC, Australia), Liam Moore (Reading, England), Ethan Pinnock (Brentford, England), Alvas Powell (FC Cincinnati, USA)
Daniel Johnson (Preston North End, England), Ravel Morrison (Derby County, England), Kevin Stewart (Blackpool, England), Peter-Lee Vassell (Hartford Athletic, USA), Lamar Walker (Inter Miami CF, USA), Devon Williams (Inter Miami CF, USA)
Michail Antonio (West Ham United, England), Bobby Reid (Fulham, England), Cory Burke (Philadelphia Union, USA), Javon East (Santos de Guápiles, Costa Rica), Junior Flemmings (FC Toulouse, France), Andre Gray (QPR, England)
CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table (after 8 games)
Canada 16pts (+8 goal difference), USA 15pts (+7), Mexico 14pts (+4), Panama 14pts (+2), Costa Rica 9pts (-1), Jamaica 7pts (-4), El Salvador 6pts (-6), Honduras 3pts (-10)
Jamaica’s remaining matches
Mexico (h) 27 January, Panama (a) 30 January, Costa Rica (h) 2 February, El Salvador (h) 24 March, Canada (a) 27 March, Honduras (h) 30 March
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