Stalemate result guarantees jittery Jamaica a berth in highly-lucrative 2023 CONCACAF Gold Cup
Andre Blake stood firm with a string of priceless saves to earn Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz a 1-1 Nations League draw at the National Stadium in Kingston last night (14 June). The captain, who had missed recent matches after getting injured during the warm-up against Suriname, was a master between the sticks to pull off seven saves and frustrate the visitors.
Jamaica, who have been stuttering and stumbling through recent matches, had their tricky friendly against Uruguay called off in order to prepare to tackle familiar foes Mexico. Indeed that was a blessing in disguise as twice-World Cup winners Uruguay had recently thumped Mexico 3-0. Leon Bailey, who spent much of last season on the injury list with English outfit Aston Villa, broke the deadlock on four minutes. Shamar Nicholson’s header hit the crossbar a few minutes later but during first-half stoppage time Luis Romo equalised.
Blake was back in business after the turnaround to keep El Tri at bay, with the result enough to collect a valuable point to book Jamaica’s place at the 2023 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Paul Hall, who remains as Jamaica’s interim head coach, opted for a 4-2-3-1 line-up with Junior Flemmings, Ravel Morrison and Bailey sitting behind lone striker Nicholson. And for a change he didn’t upset the momentum by throwing on pointless substitutions.
Mexico, who have been unconvincing in recent times, arrived having played their second-string side to secure a 3-0 success over minnows Suriname on Saturday. Yet the home fans chanted “Fuera Tata” (Tata Out) throughout that Nations League tie at the Estadio Corona in Coahuila.
Martino gave a number of fringe players another run-out with keeper Rodolfo Cota, midfielder Luis Chavez and opportunities for strikers Santi Gimenez and Orbelin Pineda.
Gerardo “Tata” Martino became the third Argentine to coach Mexico three years ago to a fanfare. However, avid supporters have been unhappy that their team only finished second in the World Cup qualifiers, even though they have reached Qatar 2022, and runner-up to the United States in both the Gold Cup and Nations League.
It was just as well that Mexico fans were not present inside the National Stadium against Jamaica.
Blake was called into early action to stop Chavez’s point-blank shot in the second minute, and from the loose ball Uriel Antuna was too eager so scuffed his effort.
Following this early scare the Boyz raced up the pitch, with Bailey outleaping two defenders and heading home Nicholson’s pinpoint cross from the left for an early lead. The home crowd, who must have half-expected to be onto a hiding, sprung into vocal delight.
Nicholson came perilously close to doubling their lead, but his header from a corner smacked against the crossbar with the goal at his mercy. The Russian-based hot-shot showed no fear throughout, having scored against Mexico in the Estadio Azteca last September.
Following Jamaica’s buoyant start, the counter-attacking tactics from the visitors started to cause problems. Defender Jesus Gallardo unleashed a telling cross from the left, but Gimenez was nowhere near the ball.
Mexico kept exerting the pressure with Pineda pulling his effort wide of the target. Blake had to be on top of his game midway through the opening half to deny Kevin Alvarez’s thunderbolt and then Duiz’s volley.
Bailey constantly proved to be a dangerous proposition for Mexico, the tricky right winger curling his 35th-minute shot high and wide of the gaping goalmouth and Cota.
Deep into first-half stoppage time the visitors grabbed a deserved equaliser to knock the stuffing out of Jamaica. Chavez fired his free-kick into the area for Romo to head past the industrious Blake from close range.
With Jamaica’s recent struggles to generate meaningful attacks and a lack of a scoring touch in the penalty area seemingly ironed out by Hall, their active attacks were cheered on by home supporters.
Yet the second half was more of a cat-and-mouse game. Nicholson’s chip over the keeper was cleared off the line by Kevin Alvarez on 51 minutes. Damion Lowe was shown a yellow card to follow fellow defenders Amari’i Bell and Jamoi Topey into the book of Guyanese referee Bryan Lopez with an unnecessary caution.
With Mexico looking menacing as the clock ticked in their soon-to-be ditched black shirts, Jamaica soaked up the pressure and were left in awe as the visitors knocked the ball around and controlled the tempo.
Devon Williams superbly recovered defensively to stave off the danger on the hour-mark, after Nene Beltran sent a through-ball into the path of Gimenez. Diego Lainez arrived on the scene as a substitute for Pineda and immediately tried his luck to no avail.
Then Blake pulled off arguably the save of the game midway through the half to keep the Boyz in the mix. Antuna picked out Chavez in the box, and his thumping diagonal effort was tipped for a corner by the diving shotstopper.
Ever-alert Blake then had to deal with slick conditions following a sudden downpour as well as the eager Mexicans, with Diego Lainez trying his luck with a trio of long-distance efforts.
Although El Tri were ever-improving, holding onto the ball by relentless passing from side to side, the clash wound itself down naturally and severely lacked the spark of the entertaining opening half.
A share of the spoils proved enough to secure a place at the 2023 Gold Cup for both teams. Yet plenty of work needs undertaking before then with improvements urgently required for both nations in terms of personnel.
World Cup-bound Mexico will undoubtedly find themselves under severe scrutiny following their failure to beat an arguably average Jamaican side. El Tri will be kicking themselves as they obviously overlooked the fact that Blake is one of the best players plying his trade in North America.
The tension will surely have been lifted for Hall on the strength of this result, whereas the pressure will be piled on his Mexican counterpart.
Hall, the London-based former Reggae Boy, is hoping to seal a deal to be appointed as head coach and lose his interim tag. A draw, albeit against an experimental Mexico side, should have improved his chances.
Now that Jamaica proved a point that they can drum up impressive results, it is time to push forward and put off-the-field problems behind them. Criticism in recent months needs to be quickly forgotten, but not swept aside, as the Boyz focus on the future.
JAMAICA: Blake – Bell, Topey, D.Lowe, Brown – Williams, Lambert (Aarons, 82) – Flemmings, Morrison, Bailey – Nicholson. Subs: Thomas, Simpson, Scarlett, Magee, J.Lowe, Foster, Chong, Green, Parris, Bygrave, Waite.
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