Thu, Sep


Now is certainly not the time to panic. Still, a hint of desperation wouldn't be out of place against Honduras.

On paper, the second fixture of a ten-game campaign is way too early to be talking do or die, and of course we have to keep reminding ourselves that four years ago, Trinidad and Tobago qualified via a playoff for the World Cup finals after scraping just one point from the first three games.

Indeed, it is almost mind-boggling to recall that after six games, the national side had just four points and were five minutes away from also losing the seventh encounter before the much-maligned Stern John struck twice to snatch a victory over Guatemala at the Hasely Crawford Stadium that kept alive a fast-fading dream.

But last-ditch rescue acts are no template for long-term success, although it seems somehow to be embedded in the Trini footballing DNA to be perpetually dangling on the edge. And that's where the extra sense of urgency, if not desperation, should now be a factor, especially after squandering a two-goal lead and missing a penalty in the opening game of this final phase last month in El Salvador.

At least we didn't lose, and, as the perennial optimists will maintain, a point is still a point. Yet in the aftermath of an encounter that seemed to be in the bag until ten minutes from the end, head coach Francisco Maturana is now facing the next four qualifying games without the vast experience and steadying influence of Dwight Yorke on the field, although his presence at training and in the dressing room must be a boost for a team that will also be without energetic midfielder Chris Birchall and first-choice goalkeeper Clayton Ince.

It's almost impossible to avoid parallels with that critical 3-2 victory over Guatemala in 2005, although, again, it bears repeating that the game then was the seventh fixture of the campaign while this impending duel with Honduras falls on matchday two of ten.

John was the hero and saviour with his late efforts then, but it was Russell Latapy--making a return to national duty--who provided the inspiration, service and, very importantly, the opening goal that re-ignited a sputtering campaign.

On the evidence of last week's warm-up fixture against Panama, it seems that the assistant coach will be concentrating on a full-time on-field role against the Hondurans as Maturana tries to fill the yawning gap left by Yorke's enforced absence as a result of his apparently less than complimentary language to Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez at the end of the game in San Salvador five weeks ago.

Four months away from his 41st birthday, Latapy has already proven doubters like me wrong as to his ability to still play an influential role in the cut and thrust of World Cup qualification, very much in the same way that Yorke, who will be 38 come November 3, is living proof that there is still something to be said for experience, awareness and composure, even in an era where the game seems to be played at a breakneck pace.

Yet as much as the veteran playmaker's deft touches and remarkable vision are a delight to behold, it is the contribution of those around him tomorrow evening that could very well determine whether or not there is the strength in depth to take this country into the top three of the final standings (or at least fourth and another playoff) by the time the final whistle is blown in the last game against Mexico on October 14.

Again, this is where we return to the theme of desperation, for those on the sidelines waiting for the chance to fill the boots of Latapy and Yorke full-time should be prepared to put out the sort of effort that will obviously further the cause of the national team, but also silence the critics who maintain that there is too much of a gap in quality between the senior statesmen and junior pretenders.

Many an observer of the local game has lamented that someone like Trent Noel, tipped for the T&T Pro League's "Player of the Year" title for 2008, was treated like an outcast by Maturana despite an outstanding season for repeat league champions CLICO San Juan Jabloteh last year. But in utilising him as a second-half substitute for Latapy against the Panamanians at the Manny Ramjohn Stadium, maybe the Colombian is sending a message to the 23-year-old that, finally, the challenge is his to prove that he has what it takes, technically and mentally, to be fully integrated into the first-choice national squad.

Of course, all of this exposes either the failure of the coach and his technical staff to effect the transition to the younger men, or the inability of those more youthful players to meet the requirements of international football when given those opportunities.

Now is not the time to be experimenting, but suspensions have forced Maturana's hand and it remains to be seen if we will be heartened by the energy and purpose of the replacements or left wondering how we will fare when the lengthy careers of Yorke and Latapy are finally, finally over.

In all of this, let us not forget that Honduras, beaten 2-0 in Costa Rica in their opening game of this final phase, are not here merely to be the supporting cast for our star boys.

It shouldn't be, I know, but it already feels like desperation time.