The Trinidad and Tobago senior national men’s team will have to forget their Panama laurels and focus exclusively on what is required to beat “one of the world’s best football teams” tomorrow evening.
The Soca Warriors take on top-of-the-table Mexico tomorrow in a hyper-crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier at the Hasely Crawford Stadium. Yesterday, at the pre-match media conference held at the Stadium’s VIP Lounge, rookie head coach Dennis Lawrence showed clearly that he has no illusions about the enormous task facing his men.
“What we did with Panama is fantastic,” he declared, “but it’s over and it’s gone. We now go into the Mexico game[…] My major concern [now] is that focus.”
Both teams are coming off recent victories. “El Tri” sauntered to a 2-0 victory over Costa Rica to seize top spot in the CONCACAF Hex table on the same evening that the Soca Warriors edged Panama 1-0.
That victory earned T&T their first points in the Hex but Lawrence is not about to let it go to his or his team’s head. He has, he said, continuously underlined the importance of getting his players to switch on—a more difficult task this time around than was the case with the Panama game.
“The main thing was […] the importance of keeping the focus and I tried to do that immediately after the Panama game,” said Lawrence. “When we look at the history, we always have this tendency that once we’ve done something good, we try and rest on our laurels a bit.”
The former Everton FC assistant coach seems confident his team has been buying into his philosophy. He said he asked them on Friday to fight for their country and, at the final whistle, believed they had done just that.
He is asking for more of the same tomorrow against Mexico.
“What I’ve tried to do is to focus them on what they can do,” he explained, “[and] what they did in the Panama game to allow them to believe in themselves.
“The idea is to be brave tomorrow and try to go toe-to-toe with Mexico and make sure we stay involved in the game. […] We can’t afford to allow Mexico to take total control of the game.”
Lawrence commented that he will not be solely basing his tactics on individuals as he believed that Mexico’s tactical flexibility means his team may find themselves up against a completely different set of players or a completely different formation come kick-off time.
“We need to make sure and focus on what we’re good at and try and pay more attention to that [and] make sure our structure is [right]… rather than focus too much on how good Mexico can be [with] their tactical flexibility.”
Flexibility or no flexibility, the North American juggernauts—whom Lawrence dubbed “one of the world’s best football teams”—have not lost to Trinidad and Tobago since October 2005 en route to T&T’s historic 2006 World Cup bow. However, recent outings provide room for optimism about a favourable outcome for Lawrence’s Warriors.
In 2015, Trinidad and Tobago battled to consecutive 4-4 and 3-3 draws with the Mexicans. The first meeting, in the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup group stage, was hailed by non-partisan viewers as the most exciting Gold Cup match of all time.
Mexico failed to take three points in their last two trips to Port of Spain either, as they drew 2-2 in 2009 and lost 2-1 in 2005.
Lawrence, who played in both of the two nations’ last World Cup qualifying meetings at the Hasely Crawford Stadium, urged his players to be positive.
“I would like to hope that, with our previous meetings with Mexico when we play in Trinidad [having] normally been tight fixtures, […] the guys take confidence in that,” he told the media. “We need to believe that we can compete.”
He did concede that injuries to some of Mexico’s senior players may provide a small boost to T&T’s chances. Mexico lost PSV midfielder Andres Guardado and LA Galaxy star Gio Dos Santos to injury prior to the March qualifiers while winger Jurgen Damm and influential veteran Rafa Márquez suffered injuries against Costa Rica and are reported to be unfit to take the field tomorrow.
“I would like to hope that [Mexico’s absent players] would be a benefit to us,” he told the assembled media. “But I’m expecting the replacements to be just as good. I’m expecting it to be a very, very tough team regardless,”
Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who became his country’s joint all-time leading goal-scorer after his typically predatory goal against Costa Rica, was taken off with a “sore thigh.” He is, however, expected to be fit for the encounter.
The former Manchester United hitman will doubtless be hoping to leave Jared Borghetti alone on 46 goals and have the goal-scoring honour all to himself by the end of Tuesday’s match. Remarkably, it will be the first time that Hernández has ever played against Trinidad and Tobago.
With Panama goal-scorer and central midfielder Kevin Molino over his fatigue, Lawrence also has his hitman available. And since Sheldon Bateau served his one-match suspension and his defensive partner Radanfah Abu Bakr recovered from his stomach ailment, Lawrence has a full squad to choose from.
“Molino had a quicker recovery than the four weeks expected,” the coach revealed with a wry smile, a reference to the mind games he indulged in with the Mexican media at Friday’s post-Panama media conference.
But he kept his cards very close to his chest when it came to revealing his starting line-up. He merely commented that, like all the other members of the full squad, Bateau is available for selection and that the starting XI will be made known on match day.
(T&T 26-Man Roster)
Goalkeepers: Marvin Phillip (Morvant Caledonia United), Jan-Michael Williams (Central FC), Glenroy Samuel (Unattached);
Defenders: Carlos Edwards (Unattached), Alvin Jones, Tristan Hodge (W Connection), Aubrey David (PS Kemi—Finland), Daneil Cyrus (Unattached), Radanfah Abu Bakr (FK Sūduva—Lithuania), Curtis Gonzales (Defence Force), Sheldon Bateau (KC Krylia Sovetov—Russia), Mekeil Williams (Colorado Rapids—USA);
Midfielders: Andre Boucaud (Dagenham & Redbridge—England), Khaleem Hyland (KV Westerlo—Belgium), Kevan George (Jacksonville Armada—USA), Hughtun Hector (W Connection), Leston Paul (Central FC);
Attacking midfielders: Cordell Cato (San Jose Earthquakes—USA), Nathan Lewis (San Juan Jabloteh), Hashim Arcia (Defence Force), Kevin Molino (Minnesota United—USA), Joevin Jones (Seattle Sounders—USA), Levi Garcia (AZ Alkmaar—Netherlands);
Forwards: Kenwyne Jones (Atlanta United FC—USA), Willis Plaza (East Bengal—India), Jamille Boatswain (Defence Force).