SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS - If only briefly, hindsight filled head coach Stephen Hart with a moment of doubt Sunday.
“If (qualification) comes down to anything, it might come down to the Honduras game at home,” he said, moments after arriving ahead of tomorrow’s decisive World Cup qualifier in Central America.
“We had a very good game and didn’t capitalize on the three points,” he said of Canada’s goalless draw against Honduras in June, “but that’s not coming back. We’re here on equal balance — it’s a final.”
With Panama certain to top CONCACAF’s Group C in Cuba, Canada and Honduras are essentially in a one-off match to advance to the region’s last six tomorrow afternoon. On 10 points after five of six third-round qualifiers, with Honduras siting on eight points, a draw will see Canada through to CONCACAF’s final round for the first time since 1997.
But Hart doesn’t want that going to his players’ heads.
“The most dangerous thing to tell a team is that they need a draw,” Canada’s bench boss said of the result that would see it through.
Canada controlled the Central Americans from start to finish when the two sides met on Matchday 2. With the game on his head deep in second-half stoppage time, Simeon Jackson missed a sitter from metres away that, looking back, would have seen Canada progress following its 3-0 win over Cuba on Friday.
And while both Hart and his players were agitated they failed to run up the score on a skeleton Cuban side dealing with illnesses and defection, there were some positives to take away.
“Some fantastic football at times,” Hart said of last Friday’s convincing win. “In the past we might have done some good attacking but we weren’t hitting the target. This time the ’keeper had to make some saves. I was quite pleased with our approach.”
It was a performance Canada will look to build on ahead of a match against a side that has struggled throughout the cycle, especially at home.
After falling 2-0 to Panama at San Pedro Sula’s Estadio Olimpico on Matchday 1, Honduras narrowly beat lowly Cuba 1-0 last month — results that indicate a touch of vulnerability within the World Cup 2010 participants.
“(The players) know they need a draw,” Hart said of the team’s mindset heading into the match, “but I think we have to be adventurous and not be afraid to play … We’ll work on a few little things. We made a 1-for-1 swap with (Lucas Cavallini) coming in and we know what we need to do.”
If those words are an indication of how Canada will set up 24 hours from now, expect the same 4-5-1 system it has looked comfortable in since the third round of qualifying began. Not wanting to upset the balance, based on Hart’s comments, the 19-year-old could very well find himself at some point playing in place of a suspended Olivier Occean.
Cavallini, who plies his trade in the Uruguayan top flight, is suited to play the Latin game, and performed well in a recent friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. Still a long shot to start tomorrow’s match after failing to earn an original call-in, with limited options up top, a “1-for-1” swap could be in order.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
Hart’s no stranger to San Pedro Sula. Canada’s head coach has travelled to the Honduran hub five times.
“It’s quite a loud stadium,” he said of tomorrow night’s venue. “The game is at (4 p.m. EDT.) and that presents a different challenge that we have to make adjustments for … It’s their yard and they’re comfortable in it.”
Like Canada, Honduras enters the final day coming off a quality outing on Matchday 5. Los Catrachos left Panama City, where Canada fell 2-0 earlier in the competition, with a goalless draw — one that set them up to advance with a win over the Reds.
“I thought (Honduras) was the better team on the night,” Hart said. “I watched it again on the plane and they were the better team. They did some very good stuff. It was quite clear Panama was more nervous.”
It’s those same nerves the Reds will have to navigate for 90 minutes tomorrow — something a Canadian team hasn’t experienced in World Cup qualifying for more than a decade.
“You can only gain from the experiences of playing in a competition where you need results,” Hart said. “I think the biggest difference in this game is going to be environmental.”
An environment that proved to be too much in Panama last month.
Canada’s recent qualifiers in Honduras
FIFA 2010 World Cup qualifying
Oct. 11, 2008
Estadio Olimpico: Attendance 35,000
Honduras 3, Canada 1
Goals: Walter Martinez (HON) ’8, Andre Hainault (CAN) ’52, Carlo Costly (HON) ’60, Hendry Thomas (HON) ‘90
FIFA 2006 World Cup qualifying
Oct. 9, 2004
Estadio Olimpico: Attendance 42,000
Honduras 1, Canada 1
Goals: Atiba Hutchinson (CAN) ’73, Danilo Turcios (HON) ’92
FIFA 1994 World Cup qualifying
April 4, 1993
Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino: Attendance 30,000
Honduras 2, Canada 2
Goals: John Catliff (CAN) ’34, Richardson Smith (HON) ’41, Alex Bunbury (CAN) ’68, Cesar Obando (HON) ’89
FIFA 1986 World Cup qualifying
Aug. 25, 1985
Honduras 0, Canada 1
Goals: George Pakos (CAN) ’58