The first noticeable slip from a Trinidad and Tobago footballer at the Ato Boldon Stadium last night came about half hour after the final whistle as the media playfully grilled midfielder Hughtun Hector about life in Vietnam where he represents champion club, Hanoi T&T.
“I try to learn a few words but the language is difficult,” said Hector. “I learned to say a few things like: ‘thanks’ and ‘I love you’.”
The diminutive playmaker turned red as reporters roared in laughter. Hector had probably said a little bit more about life in Vietnam than he would have liked.
In the prior 90 minutes, though, the “Soca Warriors” gave nothing away as the Trinidad and Tobago senior team edged Antigua and Barbuda 1-0 for its third successive win of the 2014 Caribbean Cup qualifying tournament.
Both teams advance to the regional finals. Trinidad and Tobago will play in Group A alongside defending champion, Cuba, French Guiana and Curacao while Antigua and Barbuda is in Group B with host Jamaica, Martinique and Haiti.
Trinidad and Tobago coach Stephen Hart suggested that regional football fans should get used to seeing a lot of Antigua and Barbuda.
“I was really impressed with Antigua,” said Hart. “I will make a prediction; I think you will see them in the (2015) Gold Cup.”
Antigua and Barbuda has never qualified for CONCACAF’s showcase tournament before and the tiny nation can hardly afford to be cocky in a group that includes two former Caribbean champions, Jamaica and Martinique, and a Haitian team on an upward trajectory.
But the “Benna Boys”, led by Polish technical director Piotr Nowak and coach Rolston Williams, were not short of tactical discipline and desire in Couva and, even without injured midfield ace Jorrin Jones, were able to conjure up a few half chances last night.
There was no doubting Trinidad and Tobago’s superiority though and, for once, Hart was satisfied.
“I am very, very proud of the team tonight,” said Hart. “(Antigua and Barbuda) played exactly as we thought and I thought we executed well. I was most impressed with the discipline we kept in the game…
“We knew they would sit deep, try to pull us forward and see what happened after that. I told the players: don’t throw yourselves into it; be patient and move the ball around and you will get chances.”
Team captain Kenwyne Jones was all smiles as he reminisced about a fixture in which the Warriors moved as if in one body.
“We played an almost perfect game,” said Jones.
Coaches and spectators tend to have different opinions about a perfect match.
There is nothing like a thrilling end-to-end affair or goal spree to get the pulses racing. But Trinidad and Tobago’s final qualifying fixture was closer to chess than checkers; more David Rudder than Iwer George.
Antigua and Barbuda got 10 players behind the ball, mostly in a compact square on top of their own penalty areas, and dared the Warriors to break them down. Twenty-three-year-old midfield enforcer Joshua Parker, who plays professionally for Domžale FC in Slovenia and is one of eight Antiguans who earn a living outside of the Caribbean, was like a war general on horseback as he galloped from side to side to support teammates and flatten opponents.
The Benna Boys followed his lead with a style that mixed mobility and discipline with ruthlessness.
“(Our overseas players) bring the work ethic and belief into the team,” said Williams, the Antiguan coach, “which is good for us because the younger players see how they carry about themselves and their discipline.”
But, one minute before the interval, Antigua and Barbuda failed to close an opening in time.
Jones picked out Kevin Molino with a clever flick and the “number 10” did the rest with an assured finish at the near post. It was Molino’s fourth goal in his two appearances of this competition and his sixth in nine outings under Hart.
Hart joked that former FIFA Player of the Year, Kaka, might have to make space for Molino when they combine for Orlando City in the MLS next season.
“He has to pick his moments better (to dash into spaces) so he doesn’t run out of steam against better teams,” said Hart. “He has good technique and his finishing is improving. He is on his way to being a top number 10.”
Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams was forced to make two sharp saves over the 90 minutes—one at the feet of opposing striker Peter Byers and the other to block an angled effort from Calaum Jahraldo-Martin—but the result never looked in doubt.
At the final whistle, the Warriors were already thinking of the chance to lift their first Caribbean Cup title in 13 years. Jones confirmed that the players also discussed the bonus of a place at the 2016 Copa America tournament, which will go to for regional champion.
“I think there is a terrific group of players at the moment and some (more) that can come in at anytime,” said Jones. “… For us, it is about time Trinidad and Tobago wins the Caribbean Cup again.”
The Warriors would feel encouraged by their sure-footed performance last night. Not counting Hector’s slip-up, of course.
Trinidad and Tobago (4-2-3-1): 21.Jan-Michael Williams (GK) (vice-captain); 6.Daneil Cyrus, 4.Sheldon Bateau, 19.Carlyle Mitchell, 3.Joevin Jones; 14.Andre Boucaud (17.Leston Paul 88), 8.Khaleem Hyland; 23.Lester Peltier (11.Ataulla Guerra 81), 10.Kevin Molino, 7.Hughtun Hector; 9.Kenwyne Jones (captain) (13.Cordell Cato 67).
Unused substitutes: 1.Marvin Phillip (GK), 5.Kevan George, 18.Yohance Marshall, 20.Trevin Caesar.
Coach: Stephen Hart
Antigua and Barbuda (4-2-3-1): 1.Brenton Muhammad (GK); 11.Quinton Griffith, 20.Akeem Thomas, 5.Connor Peters, 6.Zaine Francis-Angol (4.Karanja Mack 87), 2.Josha Parker, 8.Keiran Murtagh, 13.Tamorley Thomas, 12.Nathaniel Jarvis (22.Randolph Burton 72), 10.Calaum Martin (15.Mervyn Hazelwood 89); 16.Peter Byers,
Unused substitutes: 18.Molvin James (GK), 3.Okeem Challenger, 7.Tevaughn Harriette, 9.Gayson Gregory.
Technical director: Piotr Nowak
Referee: Trevor Taylor (Barbados)
Caribbean Cup results
(Sun Oct 12)
Trinidad and Tobago 1 (Kevin Molino 44), Antigua and Barbuda 0 at Couva
Dominican Republic 3 (Edipo Rodriguez, Johnathan Fana pen, Inoel Navarro), St Lucia 2 (Zaeehaeus Polius ) at Couva
(Fri Oct 10)
Antigua and Barbuda 0, Dominican Republic 0 at Couva
Trinidad and Tobago 2 (Ataulla Guerra 6, Kenwyne Jones 67), St Lucia 0 at Couva
(Wed Oct 8)
Antigua and Barbuda 2 (Keiran Murtagh, Joshua Parker), St Lucia 1 (Kurt Fredericks) at Couva;
Trinidad and Tobago 6 (Kevin Molino 3, 4, 25, Kenwyne Jones 40, 55, Trevin Caesar 76), Dominican Republic 1 (Johnathan Fana 86) at Couva;