Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz will begin the semi-final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia this week against Panama (Nov 13) and Haiti (Nov 17). The matches are four days apart and a bad start after next Tuesday could badly derail the Boyz’s campaign to return to football’s biggest stage. The national team seemed to be on the right track when they defeated USA on the way to the Gold Cup final, but losing 3-2 at home to lowly Nicaragua demands a rethink.
Here are 5 things the Reggae Boyz should do in order to take all six points:
- The team has to start the game on the front foot. Take the first opportunity at goal and set the Panamanians and Haitians on the back foot. In recent times the team has taken up a habit of trying to feel their way into the football (especially when at home) where laziness, lethargy and loss of concentration can creep in. It was most apparent – when complacency also played a role – in the Boyz disastrous start at home against Nicaragua in September. An early penalty within the first six minutes badly affected any momentum carried over from their phenomenal run in the Gold Cup. It clearly took a long time for the Boyz to settle after that, hence the two late goals. This must not happen again, the opposition won’t be as forgiving this time around.
- Retain the shape that gave us such a successful run in the Gold Cup. For the first in over a decade, the Boyz actually looked organized in its shape and that accounted for an impressive defensive record across the Copa America and Gold Cup tournaments.This was because the team positioned two banks of four in front of goal, with players adopting a new found work ethic under coach Winfried Schafer. The experience of Wes Morgan and Adrian Mariappa has been crucial throughout this period while the tactical awareness of Michael Hector has been a welcome addition; Kemar Lawrence’s work-rate on the left side has been a breath of fresh air. In front of that four has been the partnership of Je-Vaughn Watson and Rodolph Austin, which is arguably the roughest central midfield pairing in the region, despite Watson not being a personal favourite of mine. Familiarity among these players is key.
- Giles Barnes and Darren Mattocks must start together up front. Despite the addition of two new strikers to the Reggae Boyz squad, including one for the first time, coach Schafer must start with the two most productive players for the Reggae Boyz this year – Barnes and Mattocks. Birmingham City’s Clayton Donaldson is a worthy pointman and should become useful (his stature reminds me of Jermaine ‘Tuffy’ Anderson) at some stage in the campaign. But during that 3-2 loss to Nicaragua at home, Mattocks and Barnes were the only two players that showed some fight and were willing to throw the kitchen sink (although Barnes decided to throw his fist into the dugout instead). With Jobi McAnuff, Barnes has proven to be the team’s chief creative force behind the main striker, an element we have been missing for a long time while Mattocks is growing into a reliable goal scorer.
- Be prepared to play on the counter-attack against Panama and Haiti. Neither team will be a walkover, this is the ‘group of death’ after all! Judging by their Gold Cup exploits, both teams enjoy having the ball at their feet. The Boyz quarter-final game against Haiti ended in a 1-0 scoreline, with Haiti enjoying the better of the goal-scoring opportunities. Panama is a very aggressive team and will look to give Jamaica a hard time in midfield. Both teams like to attack; Jamaica will have to defend in numbers but the counter-attack will be our best bet with the speed of Gareth McCleary, Darren Mattocks and Giles Barnes to bank on. This tactic worked against Haiti in the Gold Cup and I’m backing it to work again versus Panama at the Office and in Port-au-Prince.
- Fly to Port-au-Prince as early as possible following the Panama game. It is quite likely that the entire football squad would have never been to or played in Haiti before. Not much is known of the atmosphere or playing conditions that the Jamaicans will have to encounter in Haiti. In the CONCACAF region, countries like Honduras have developed a reputation for being atrocious hosts in an attempt to unsettle visiting teams. In the process, Honduras has become one of the most difficult places to play in during World Cup qualifying. It is not known whether it will be the same in Haiti, but the best bet is to assess conditions quickly and devise a gameplan from there.
Come out and support the Boyz as we take on Panama at the Office on Friday. I’ll be watching keenly to see what plans coach Schafer and his team will implement and which of my suggestions will prove to be crucial or not. Take your seat on the wagon, as we set off for Russia!
IPP Writer: Alexei DaCosta