Interim head coach Paul Hall rings in new formation to give home fans something to finally cheer about with El Salvador stalemate
Andre Gray’s second-half strike against El Salvador at Kingston’s National Stadium ended Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz four-match losing streak last night (24 March).
Gray bagged a close-range 72nd-minute equaliser to cancel out Eriq Zavaleta opener midway through the first half, but the Boyz frivolled away a handful of glorious chances to secure a rare victory. Interim head coach Paul Hall masterminded a much-improved performance in front of around a thousand die-hard home supporters. And his players came perilously close to snatching maximum points in their CONCACAF World Cup qualifier.
Having already been eliminated from the campaign to reach November’s World Cup finals in Qatar, the squad selected only had pride to play for. Although arguably these trio of games – Canada (March 27) and Honduras (March 30) – are effectively a chance to impress in a bid to earn a call-up to May’s CONCACAF Nations League squad.
This was a shaken-up squad, no doubt partly due to the tightening of purse strings by the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF), with the usual array of British-based stars severely trimmed down.
Controversially, four British-based stars were snubbed. There was no room for Brentford defender Ethan Pinnock, Blackpool midfielder Kevin Stewart, AFC Bournemouth attacker Jamal Lowe and Rangers forward Kemar Roofe. Lowe, a former England C international, and Scotland-based Roofe both missed out on January’s qualifiers as they had each just returned from injury.
But Leon Bailey was the shining star and headed the small British-based contingency of shotstopper Dillon Barnes, defender Gregory Leigh, midfielder Ravel Morrison and striker Gray.
Even though out-of-sorts West Ham striker Michail Antonio was missing, had he lined up alongside the industrious Gray then his finishing skills should have earned Jamaica victory. But burly Antonio, who has scored three times in six international appearances, has not been on target at club level since New Year’s Day.
Yet for Hall, who had tasted four defeats on the bounce since taking over from axed Theodore Whitmore in mid-December, a precious CONCACAF World Cup qualifying point must surely have seemed more like a victory at the final whistle.
The Boyz set about their task with much better intent than usual. Hall had employed virtually identical tactics to Whitmore during his defeats to Peru, Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica. So when he altered things for this match, reverting to a 5-3-2 formation, things looked promising and the Boyz flowed.
Midfield maestro Bailey, recalled following a long-term thigh injury, got the home fans excited with his pace and poise. Despite weaving his way past keeper Mario Gonzalez, the Aston Villa winger failed to cleanly strike the ball from an acute angle in the sixth minute.
El Salvador took early control to push the Jamaicans back, and home skipper Andre Blake brilliantly tipped over Narciso Orellana’s ambitious drive effort on the quarter-of-an-hour mark.
The hosts must have rued Bailey’s missed opportunity to take the lead, when El Salvador pressed forward again and were rewarded by Zavaleta heading home Eric Calvillo’s telling 21st-minute corner.
This goal did not deflate Jamaica like usual, instead it sparked a revival. They bounced back with aplomb and almost levelled matters only for Morrison’s thunderous drive from outside the box to be denied by the post on 28 minutes.
With the Boyz more buoyant after the turnaround, Gray was guilty for squandering a great goal-scoring chance. Beautifully set up by Morrison, he blasted his effort over the gaping goalmouth on 56 minutes.
Daniel Green, drafted in from Mount Pleasant Academy, almost made it a dream debut eight minutes later but Gonzalez managed to make an impressive fingertip save.
The Boyz were bossing the game, with more possession and hitting speculative shots to unnerve El Salvador. Their persistent eventually paid off with Gray making amends for his glaring miss with a fine finish.
Bailey started the move by picking out Javain Brown on the flank, who sped pass the opponents like a knife through butter and squared the ball for Gray to nudge home from close range. The fans, all limited to watching the action from the grandstand, went wild with their goal celebrations.
And they should have had more to cheer about only for Gonzalez to be equal to Damion Lowe’s late chance and for the sides to share a 1-1 stalemate for the second time in this World Cup campaign.
Since they were held 1-1 by visiting Jamaica in November, El Salvador have won just once – a 2-0 triumph over basement side Honduras – in seven matches.
El Salvador, who had lost 2-0 to Canada in their previous match, have endured an even worse campaign than Jamaica. They have been tarnished by a player revolt over bonuses and claims of treatment by the Salvadoran Football Federation.
El Salvador-born Hugo Pérez, a midfielder who made more than 70 appearances for the USA, was installed as head coach last year and has since been heavily recruiting players born in the United States to Salvadoran parents. They are a team in transition, even more than Jamaica, and lie eight places behind the Boyz with a FIFA world ranking of no.70.
If the Boyz are going to climb back into the world’s top 50 then a turnaround of results is urgently required. Jamaica’s last home success dates back to October 2019, when Whitmore oversaw a 2-0 triumph over relative minnows Aruba in the CONCACAF Nations League. And it was seven matches ago since the Boyz registered a victory, their 2-0 win in Honduras last October.
Hall has two more matches in his role as interim head coach before he discusses any potential future involvement with the JFF. The British-based former international, who coached QPR U23 team, tackles Canada before closing the doomed World Cup qualifying campaign against rock-bottom Honduras.
Table-topping Canada, who need at least a draw against Jamaica to secure a berth at Qatar 2022, were stunned 1-0 by Costa Rica. Their shock loss, their first World Cup qualifying defeat, means that Costa Rica remain in the chase with Mexico and the United States for the three automatic qualifying slots two matches remaining.
If Hall can repeat Costa Rica’s feat and score a victory over Canada then he will impress the JFF and give them food for thought that he is a serious candidate to become Jamaica’s head coach.
Jamaica: Blake – King, Lowe, Mariappa, Brown, Leigh – Williams (Howell, 87), Morrison, Bailey – Green (Bygrave, 71), Gray. Subs not used: Barnes, Knight, Pearson, Nelson, Walker, Marshall, Thomas, Topey, Ximines, Rose
CONCACAF World Cup qualifying matches: Costa Rica 1 Canada 0, Jamaica 1 El Salvador 1, Mexico 0 USA 0, Panama 1 Honduras 1
CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table (after 12 games): Canada 25pts (+13 goal difference), USA 22pts (+9), Mexico 22pts (+6), Costa Rica 19pts (+2), Panama 18pts (+1), El Salvador 10pts (-7), Jamaica 8pts (-8), Honduras 4pts (-17)
Jamaica’s remaining matches: Canada (a) 27 March, Honduras (h) 30 March
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