BALANCE AND execution are assets Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz will look to align with their play as they hunt an away victory against El Salvador in today’s FIFA World Cup qualifier at Estadio Cuscatlan in San Salvador, beginning at 9:00 p.m. Jamaica time.

Since the Jamaicans began Octagonal play in September, juggling players to get the right mix has been a major problem affecting the outfit, which has appeared as two different units, especially in the first three matches.

Its genesis spurred from a loaded addition of British-based players on the eve of qualifying action, plodded into a mix with largely local-bred players gelling in the team for years, highlighted by a spot in Concacaf Gold Cup finals twice.

And for the first four matches especially, the team appeared like people without sight in the midst of barren acreage, wandering aimlessly to secure only one point, having been dealt defeat by three of the top four countries – Mexico and the United States away, and Panama delivering a heart-shattering 3-0 blow at home inside the National Stadium.

A TURNAROUND

With their backs against the wall, coach Theodore Whitmore’s job on the line, and player availability decimated by injuries and withdrawals, the core most familiar playing with each other responded with grit, determination, and steely character to forge a turnaround and their best patch of results in their previous two matches, with a goalless draw against Canada and a handsome 2-0 away win at last-placed Honduras.

Having scaled adversity and on the upswing with its common lot through absenteeism, or good fortune – whichever way you choose to look at it – the Jamaicans have reverted to the heavily mixed squad with many late additions, which has proven to be least productive, for this encounter.

Given that they are with different clubs and have not had a great deal of opportunity to, importantly, acquaint themselves with each other’s personality and play, the team was assembled in El Salvador for this match with an extra day’s preparation.

Asked if the chemistry was far better now, Whitmore responded: “Yes, no doubt about it. Once we can find the right balance and the players go out there and execute then we shouldn’t have any problems.”

Whitmore noted his players getting in good exercise and building camaraderie as well as an analytical session that would have enhanced the understanding crucial for any team unit and creating the balance the Reggae Boyz desperately need.

“It is important,” Whitmore said, about finding the right balance. “We have to build on the last two games. Every player here understands; they know what we have to do; they know what needs to be done, and that is going to be critical.” 

Even at this middle stage of the 14-game qualifying schedule, the match is crucial to either team’s chances of advancing as both are tied on five points with Jamaica in sixth and their opponents seventh place and only the top three guaranteed qualifying to the FIFA Qatar 2022 World Cup Final.

With fourth ascertained a second chance in a Continental play-off, if only by way of position, Jamaica and El Salvador might not seem to be in too bad a state.

However, the points tell a much different story with Mexico’s 14, the United States’ 11, and Canada’s 10 mounting a position that is insurmountable as far as tough World Cup qualifying is concerned. So Jamaica and El Salvador have their job cut out and are expected to throw down a dogfight.

“(El Salvador) is a quality team. Every time we come to El Salvador, it’s no easy game,” Whitmore said yesterday morning in a press conference streamed live.

PREPARING FOR CHALLENGE

“We expect a tough game tomorrow, so we just have to prepare ourselves both physically and mentally for the challenge. We are prepared for the task, and we just have to stick to what we have to do. So execution is going to be the key to the game tomorrow (today),” the Jamaica coach noted.

The El Salvadoreans, like all Central American teams, have good ball technique and skill. Jamaica, though, matches them well in records with 10 wins and five draws in 21 internationals between the nations. 

Overall, the teams have met seven times in World Cup qualifying, sharing three victories apiece.

In their most recent ties, back in 2019, Jamaica lost 2-0 in Concacaf Nations League play, but rallied for a goalless draw later at the Concacaf Gold Cup. 

A big on-field factor in Jamaica’s recent turn-around involves a tactical shift to three players in central defence and away from the flat back four that conceded eight goals in its first four matches. Though Damion Lowe has been erratic at times, his combination with long-serving Adrian Mariappa and recalled veteran Je-Vaughn ‘Hacker’ Watson has been the most effective defensive shield, which included Kemar Lawrence at left back, Oniel Fisher on the right and the central midfielders who seem to understand each other most, omnipresent workman Anthony Grant and Devon ‘Speedie’ Williams, slick and equipped with a good passing range.

Smith, interestingly, was only brought into the starting team for the more physical Alvas Powell. However, the former has represented well and even scored one of the goals in the famous 2-0 win at Honduras, Jamaica’s first in World Cup qualifying in the Central American country. So it will be interesting to see in Fisher’s case if ‘one good turn deserves another’.

The same must be said of Watson, about whom much is being made about his age. He brought every bit of those 38 years grit of and professional football expertise into play in Honduras, especially when pulled back at sweeper to add composure and good ball play. Now fitter and sharper, one would be tempted to believe that he has a fit in Whitmore’s plans.

Outstanding goalkeeping captain Andre Blake is a certainty, but as it is with the defensive cadre, there are many more options up front for attacking play. Big striker Shamar Nicholson has scored in two matches and played a big part with the shot deflected in for Kemar Roofe’s goal in the last game, so both should certainly be in the reckoning, while Aston Villa’s Leon Bailey returns for the first match this campaign, following an injury setback; Cory Burke also returns from injury; and West Ham’s Michail Antonio also returns after backing out of the October qualifying window.

When asked about the importance of Antonio to the squad, Whitmore said: “Michail Antonio is here, but not only Michail Antonio, but every player that represents the national team is a very important part of the team. We have 24 players, and we have to focus on the 24 players.”

He added: “So far, we (have) had nice training sessions, just completed the third. The first day coming here, it wasn’t much of a training session, (it was) just to get the guys out, relax. Yesterday, the intensity of the training was very high. Pleased with what I saw. So we are looking forward to the game tomorrow (today).”

audley.boyd@gleanerjm.com

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