Central FC ended 2014 atop the Trinidad and Tobago Pro League standings; but only just.
In the final fixture of the calendar year, the “Couva Sharks” snatched a last gasp draw against North East Stars at the Ato Boldon Stadium to remain in the Pro League’s driving seat with 14 points from seven games. But it might be a temporary comfort.
DIRECTV W Connection is just one point behind and with a game in hand. And the combination of ruthless attacking intent and youthful enthusiasm that the “Savonetta Boys” displayed in their 6-1 dismantling of Police FC would gave any opponent reason to pause.
The 2014/15 Pro League season is split into three rounds that will each carry a $35,000 cash prize and trophy. The first round is called the Rawle Fletcher Cup, named after the slain former Defence Force player, and second placed Connection will claim it if they manage a win against San Juan Jabloteh on the next match day, which is on 7 January 2015.
It is yet another reason for the Couva rivals to spend the Christmas season stealing glances at each other.
For North East Stars and Police, there were harsh lessons. Both teams might have done better. Do Stars coach Angus Eve and Police coach Richard Hood, both former national coaches, chalk it up to an off day? Or was it a sign of a deeper problem?
The “Lawmen” set themselves up in a flexible, attack-minded 4-1-4-1 system in which the sitting midfielder, Todd Ryan, often drops between his two central defenders to start plays while his full backs bomb forward creating, at time, as many as seven midfield players.
The problem was the slow transition, mentally and otherwise, from attack to defence left a gap that Connection were more than capable of exploiting.
Connection opened the scoring after just two minutes as Police goalkeeper Adrian Foncette fumbled a speculative Akeem Garcia effort into the back of his own net. From then on, the harder Police tried to claw a goal back, the more Connection widened the gap through incisive counter attacks that often featured either the pacey Neil Benjamin Jr or the clever Hashim Arcia.
Coach Stuart Charles-Fevrier’s troops, as they showed yesterday, are at their most dangerous when they are defending. No team has conceded less than the four goals they let in so far this season and that is not down to guesswork.
And that brings us to North East.
Eve’s squad has also conceded just four times this season and there is no doubting the profound organisation of the Sangre Grande-based outfit. But while Connection lures teams towards their penalty area to catch them unawares, Stars, without the pace of the departed Cornell Glen and Trevin Caesar, seem less likely to deliver a punch from off the ropes and defend as an end in itself.
Legendary Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho once remarked that it is impossible to make a good omelette with bad eggs. And Eve can justifiably point out that players of Glen’s ilk do not come around often.
Yet it would be interesting to see if the talented young coach, who is Trinidad and Tobago’s most capped outfield player, can find a solution as the season goes on.
Yesterday was two points wasted for Stars.
Central’s players looked as if their minds had already turned to Christmas shopping.
Two uncharacteristically loose passes from defensive sweeper Marvin Oliver in the opening half hour presented decent chances for Stars that neither Kennedy Hinkson nor Tyrone Charles could take. But Central’s good fortune expired in the 41st minute as Charles curled a brilliant, 22-yard free kick around the wall and beyond the despairing dive of goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams.
Central midfielder Darren Mitchell looked to have switched off at the edge of the defensive wall and might have done better to protect his goalkeeper. And boy did Oliver let him know that!
But the real issue for the Sharks was that, with Sean De Silva and Leston Paul missing through injury, there was a shortage of midfielders who wanted to get on the ball or had the ability to peel off attentive markers.
Coach Zoran Vranes might not have seen it that way. Even when attacking midfielder Ataulla Guerra was introduced at the interval, Central preferred to leave its scheming to defender Akeem “Battery” Benjamin whose 40-yard passes towards Dwight Quintero seemed to be Plan A to C.
Repeatedly, Quintero failed to control or redirect the “second ball” to a teammate as Stars defended competently and comfortably. But, unlike Connection, Stars focused all its intention on absorbing and repelling attacks rather than lashing back.
And, a minute into stoppage time, Central found a way through.
Substitute Jason Marcano gave a rare display of incisive wing play as he chased what looked to be a lost cause and produced an inviting cut back from the touchline. And Guerra finished with a neat, swivelled volley that looked much easier to execute than it was.
Stars were unlucky on one hand. On the other, they should have known that Central possessed enough talent to find a way past their mass defending eventually.
For Police, the contest was over almost as quickly as it begun.
Foncette’s second minute lapse allowed Garcia his second Connection since the teenager’s pre-season move from Jabloteh. And Ryan was almost as culpable for Connection’s next item in the 24th minute as his poor first touch allowed Jerrel Britto to steal possession and drill past the Police goalkeeper after a quick exchange of passes.
Garcia, who was one of three national under-20 players used on the evening along with the Naparima College duo of Martieon Watson and Jabari Mitchell, created the third with a perceptive, threaded pass for Benjamin to finish. Police were all over the place by then and there might have been a 50-yard gap between Hood’s four defenders while “Mr Pyrotechnics” in the uncovered stand was more active than Connection custodian Julani Archibald.
Hood introduced utility player Noel Williams at halftime and he almost scored within seconds as he cut back from Connection defender Joel Russell and almost caught out Archibald with an effort that curled and dipped just over the bar.
But then Police are decent going forward. They just retreat into defence as casually as a public servant returning from lunch on a Friday afternoon.
Inexplicably, an Archibald clearance was allowed to drop behind the Police defence for Connection’s fourth goal, which was converted by Benjamin. And Arcia got the fifth and sixth through rapid counterattacks from Britto and Benjamin respectively on either flank.
Connection scored their final item with just 10 players on the field after Britto was ejected for a word out of turn to referee Cecile Hinds.
Like most Trinidad and Tobago officials, Hinds can be thin-skinned and overly quick to demonstrate the powers she thinks she has. But, at the same time, a player who can talk himself into a red card while his team is leading 5-0 probably needs more than a hug this Christmas.
Kerry Frederick got a consolation goal for Police in the 77th minute after an effort from teammate Elijah Belgrave fell kindly for him. But it could not mask a whipping from an in-form team.
The Pro League’s holiday break could not be better timed for Connection’s rivals.
W Connection (4-2-1-3): 18.Julani Archibald (GK); 39.Alvin Jones, 35.Martieon Watson, 5.Mekeil Williams (captain), 36.Triston Hodge; 3.Gerard Williams (19.Josel Russell 46), 11.Tremain Paul; 14.Hashim Arcia (23.Keon Boucher 87); 65.Neil Benjamin Jr, 12.Jerrel Britto, 29.Akeem Garcia (34.Jabari Mitchell 76).
Unused substitutes: 22.Aquelius Sylvester (GK), 10.Yefer Steven, 13.Devaughn Elliot, 16.Anselm Jackson.
Coach: Stuart Charles-Fevrier
Police FC (4-1-4-1): 19.Adrian Foncette (GK); 24.Jibiri McDavid, 2.Jasimar Ashers, 20.Elijah Belgrave, 17.Dexter Alleyne (15.Jameel Perry 57); 21.Todd Ryan (captain); 39.Kevin Lewis (25.Noel Williams 28), 11.Kareem Perry, 32.Kaaron Foster, 35.Kerry Frederick; 19.Christon Thomas.
Unused substitutes: 31.Theon Browne (GK), 4.Karlon Murray, 13.Elijah Roberts, 29.Clevon McFee, 30.Marcus Chandool.
Coach: Richard Hood
Referee: Cecile Hinds
Pro League results
(Thu Dec 18)
W Connection 6 (Akeem Garcia 2, Jerrel Britto 26, Neil Benjamin Jr 32, 54, Hashim Arcia 56, 73), Police FC 1 (Kerry Frederick 77) at Couva;
North East Stars 1 (Tyrone Charles 41), Central FC 1 (Ataulla Guerra 90+1) at Couva