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Trinidad and Tobago Pro League outfit Central FC have booked a fourth consecutive Caribbean Club Championship finals spot after topping Group B of the 2018 edition with a hard-fought 1-0 win over hot-tempered hosts Atlántico FC on Sundaynight at the Estadio Cibao in Santiago, Dominican Republic.

Atlántico fell behind on the hour mark through a Yoan Melo own-goal and were later denied from the penalty spot before having a goal disallowed for a handball, then saw defender Yesion Murillo ejected by a red card deep in stoppage time as they exited the tournament.

Central, champions of 2015 and 2016 and fourth-placed finishers in 2017, won Group B with six points, two ahead Jamaica’s Portmore United and Atlántico, who finished second and third respectively and only separated by goal-difference, while Haiti’s Racing FC finished bottom of the group.

Central advances to face Group A runners-up Arnett Gardens (Jamaica) in the semi-finals—tentatively set for May—while Portmore, who were edged 1-0 by Racing in their final group game on Sunday, must take on Group A winners Club Atletico Pantoja of Dominican Republic.

Last season, Dominica Republic’s Cibao FC edged Trinidadian club San Juan Jabloteh 1-0 in Trinidad to lift the Caribbean crown on debut and earned the region’s spot in the 2018 Concacaf Champions League. Back then Jabloteh, Portmore and Central, by virtue of finishing second, third and fourth respectively, qualified for the inaugural 2017 Concacaf League for Central American and Caribbean clubs.

This season, the Caribbean champions will gain a place in the 2019 Concacaf Champions League, while the runner-up and third place finishers will qualify for the 2018 Concacaf League.

The fourth-place side, however, will face the winners of the Tier 2 tournament -- Caribbean Club Shield -- in a playoff to determine the third club that will represent the Caribbean in the 2018 Concacaf League. The Tier 2 champions, however, must comply with the minimum CONCACAF Club Licensing requirements to secure participation.

Central, also champions on debut became the second club after Puerto Rico Islanders to successfully defend the crown in the new era, and the Couva Sharks seem intent on putting their hands on the Caribbean title once more this season.

“Now, it’s a new team, so we’ve got to have that drive and that fight again,” veteran attacker Jason Marcano told concacaf.com. Marcano was a vital part of the Central FC teams that won the Caribbean crown in 2015 and 2016.

Headed by coach Stern John and his new support staff that includes assistant coach Walt Noriega, Central were equipped with a brilliant bunch of experience and youth and though starting the campaign on the wrong end of a 2-0 score against Portmore United (Wednesday), the Sharks rebounded brilliantly with a 3-0 hammering of Haiti’s Racing FC (Friday) before edging Atlántico in the group finale.

Earlier on Sunday, Portmore’s unbeaten trot was snapped by Racing, the Haitians snatching the narrow 1-0 win through attacker Daniel Jameley who controlled a long pass out of the back in the 27th minute then drifted in from the left before curling a delightful shot past the Jamaicans’ goalkeeper for a lead that they never let up.

Central, needing nothing less than a victory in the second game against Atlántico, broke the hosts on the hour mark when left-back Melo inadvertently turned an angled Darren Mitchell effort into the back of his own net after the Dominicans failed to avert danger when Densill Theobald floated a cross into the middle of the box.

Mitchell, however, would give away a penalty on the other end in the 70th minute after bundling Joel Perucci to ground in the box. But Central’s 21-year-old former England-based shot-stopper Montel Joseph brilliantly matched Perucci’s left-footed blast from the spot with a diving save to his right.

Herlyn Cuica then had the ball in the back of the Sharks’ net from the resulting corner but Jamaican referee Oshane Nation was well positioned to spot the ball off the midfielder’s arm and disallowed the goal.

Joseph had also made a shutout moments before the break to keep out a powerful left-footed attempt from above the box by Cristofer Reynoso, who, on the stroke of the half, flashed another try across the face of goal.

However it was Central who enjoyed the major share of dangerous attacks and forward Jason Marcano could have had his name on the scoresheet twice within the first dozen of minutes, including forcing Atlántico goalkeeper Cristian Blanco into a miraculous save that saw the ball spin over the top.

Blanco had to be sharp on 57 minutes when Rhondell Gibson tried to beat the Atlántico goalie from 25 yards out, but the Central midfielder’s effort took a slight deflection to fly wide of the post.

And after conceding three minutes later, Atlántico tempers began to flare and it didn’t come a surprise when referee Nation had to issue defender Murillo a direct red card for pulling Darren Mitchell to ground above the box as his team’s last line of defence before Blanco as Central attempted to out the hosts’ lights in the fourth of five minutes stoppage-time.

Concacaf Caribbean Club Championship 2018
Group B (Dominican Republic)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Central FC 0 v Portmore United FC 2 (Ricardo Morris 47’, Jermie Lynch 86’), at Estadio Cibao, Santiago, Dominican Republic;

Atlántico FC 2 (Engelbert Briceño 7’, Jarol Herrera 16’) v Racing FC 1 (Charles Bendy 27’), at Estadio Cibao, Santiago, Dominican Republic.

Friday, February 9, 2018    
Racing FC 0 v Central FC 3 (Jason Marcano 11’, Paul Marckendel Own Goal 40’, Tyrone Charles 49’), at Estadio Cibao, Santiago, Dominican Republic;

Atlántico FC 2 (Herlyn Cuica 77', 87') v Portmore United FC 2 (Javon East 41', Ewan Grandison 72' pen.), at Estadio Cibao, Santiago, Dominican Republic.

Sunday, February 11, 2018
Portmore United FC 0 v Racing FC 1 (Daniel Jameley 27’), at Estadio Cibao, Santiago, Dominican Republic;

Atlántico FC 0 v Central FC 1 (Yoan Melo Own Goal 60’), at Estadio Cibao, Santiago, Dominican Republic.

Group A (Trinidad and Tobago)
Wednesday 31 January 2018
Club Atletico Pantoja 0 vs Arnett Gardens 0, at Ato Boldon Stadium;

W Connection 0 vs Real Hope Football Academy 1 (Jeudy Johnson 2’), at Ato Boldon Stadium.

Friday, February 2, 2018        
Real Hope FA 0 vs Atletico Pantoja 3 (Luis Espinal 35’, Armando Maita 40’, 59’), at Ato Boldon Stadium.

W Connection 2 (Marcus Joseph 2’, 13) vs Arnett Gardens 1 (Fabien Reid 61’ pen.), at Ato Boldon Stadium. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018
Arnett Gardens FC 4 (Fabien Reid 65’, 86’ pen., 90’+2, Leon Strickland 90’) v Real Hope FA 0, at Ato Boldon Stadium, Couva, Trinidad;

W Connection FC 0 v Club Atletico Pantoja 3 (Luis Espinal 27’, Armando Maita 30’, Juan Carlos López 65’ pen.), at Ato Boldon Stadium, Couva, Trinidad.

Teams at the Estadio Cibao on Sunday
Atlántico FC: 1.Cristian Blanco (GK), 2.Yoan Melo (21.Eduin Munoz 66th minute), 3.Pablo Ceverino (20.Ronaldo Cuellar 83rd minute), 5.Daniel Luis Saez, 7.Joel Perucci, 8.Lis Welkin (10.Adrian Salcedo 69th minute), 9.Engelbert Briceno, 11.Jarol Herrera, 17.Yesion Murillo, 19.Cristofer Reynoso, 30.Herlyn Cuica.

Coach - Nahuel Bernabeu

Central FC: 30.Montel Joseph (GK), 5.Carlyle Mitchel (Capt.), 19.Jason Macarno (3.Tyrik John 90th minute), 9.Tyrone Charles (15.Kaydion Gabriel 79th minute), 11.Darren Mitchell, 12.Taryk Samson, 13.Rondell Gibson, 17.Anthony Wolfe, 22.Jameel Neptune, 27.Nathan Lewis, 18.Densill Theobald.

Coach: Stern John

Originally published on ttproleague.com