Feb 5 (Reuters) - Mexico and United States know from bitter experience they face a path full of pitfalls in the final stage of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers which get underway on Wednesday with six teams battling for three places in Brazil.
A potentially thrilling and tension-packed 10-match contest in the North and Central America and Caribbean region starts with favourites Mexico at home to improving Jamaica, the United States in Honduras and Costa Rica travelling to Panama.
Although Mexico and the U.S. are clear favourites, both have stumbled to embarrassing defeats in the past on the bumpy pitches and in the hostile stadiums of Central America and the Caribbean and are well aware of what awaits them.
“There is no easy way, not for Mexico, not for the United States, not for anybody,” said U.S. head coach Juergen Klinsmann whose team lost in Jamaica in the previous stage of the competition.
“You have to get your points, you have to win your games and you have to get the job done. You have to go into every game with the expectation that it’s going to be difficult, that it will challenge you to the limits,” added the German.
The teams face each other home and away with the top three qualifying automatically for the 32-team finals in Brazil next year. The fourth-placed side gets a second chance in a two-legged playoff against the champions of the Oceania region.
Four years ago the U.S. topped the ‘Hexagonal’ final round with Mexico second and Honduras in third place.
Mexico, Olympic and CONCACAF Gold Cup champions, are the favourites this time with the U.S. expected to push them hardest for top spot and a fierce battle for the third place with Honduras and Costa Rica the most likely challengers.
Panama are a tough side to break down, however, and Jamaica have steadily improved under the leadership of coach Theodore Whitmore who was a player in the last ‘Reggae Boyz’ team to make it to the World Cup finals in France in 1998.
English-born midfielders Jobi McAnuff and Garath McCleary have been drafted into the squad and should both start at the Azteca stadium where Mexico have lost just once in a World Cup qualifier.
Mexico, who won all six games in the previous stage of the competition, will have Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez leading their line in an attacking formation featuring Mallorca forward Giovani dos Santos.
“We’ve got a great generation of players who have been tasting success and we’re full of confidence,” said Dos Santos.
“Hopefully we can start with a win and set the tone for what’s to follow. I think we have what it takes to have a great year.”
The U.S. start their campaign without the key man in their past two World Cup efforts, midfielder Landon Donovan who is taking a break from the game, as they face the cauldron of San Pedro Sula’s Olimpico Metropolitano stadium.
Tottenham Hotspur forward Clint Dempsey will be the man Klinsmann looks to for creative inspiration in the absence of Donovan but Honduras, who hammered Canada 8-1 in the previous stage, represent a tough opening fixture for the Americans.
Honduras can call on an increasing number of players who have gained experience in European leagues and they no longer see themselves as underdogs despite having only one win from six qualifying clashes with the U.S.
“With respect to the previous times we’ve gone up against the U.S., with this different group of players, a different coach, there’s more experience, more maturity and more international experience,” said defender Osman Chavez.
“There’s no longer any fear and there’s a lot more confidence. We have to take the field and show them who’s who.” (Editing by Brian Homewood)