Sunday, August 9, 2009

Qualifier preview: Costa Rica at Honduras

This is Game 2 of our four-part series of previews leading up to Wednesday, the day when eight World Cup qualifying matches are played.

Costa Rica vs. Honduras, in the steamy port city of San Pedro Sula.

This is a sort of Zero Hour for the Hondurans, who stand third in the Concacaf table midway through the qualifying process. To keep their slight lead over fourth-place Mexico, Honduras needs to win at home against the group-leading Ticos.

The top three finishers in the Concacaf tournament go to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup.

The No. 4 finisher goes into a home-and-home playoff with the No. 5 team out of South America, and Honduras will be an underdog to advance over whomever that No. 5 team is.

So, yes, the Hondurans want to stay ahead of Mexico -- and could even move into second place if the U.S. loses to Mexico earlier Wednesday, and would then trail table-leading Costa Rica by only two points.

But a defeat, at home ...

A defeat, at home ... could be ruinous for the Hondurans, who must still play at Mexico and El Salvador. While a road victory by the Ticos would all but put them into the 2010 World Cup.

To watch the two squads warm up is to like the Catrachos, as the Hondurans are known. They clearly are the bigger and more physical side, and they appear to have an edge in speed, too.

They have quality attacking players in enough depth -- Carlos Costly, Carlos Pavon, Tottenham-based midfielder Wilson Palacios, Parma-based midfielder (and free-kick specialist) Julio "Rambo" de Leon, FC Toronto standout Amado Guevara and even Gold Cup revelation George Welcome -- that they should be able to withstand the absence of high-profile striker David Suazo (of Inter Milan), who will miss the match with a leg injury.

Costa Rica, often a more elegant and cohesive side, won at home against Honduras, 2-0, back in February, on a pair of second-half goals from forward Andy Furtado.

But the Ticos are not nearly as formidable away from their home in San Jose, having lost 2-0 at Mexico and winning only 3-2 at bottom-of-the-table Trinidad & Tobago. Also, they rarely win on Honduran soil, and what has been such a promising start to qualifying could founder if they can't pick up another point or three in their three remaining road games -- against Honduras, El Salvador and the United States.

Walter Centeno, captain and midfielder, has been Costa Rica's best player so far. But the Ticos also have gotten lots of offense from playmaking midfielder Celso Borges and forward Bryan Ruiz.

Costa Rica vs. Honduras is considered the best rivalry in Central America. Costa Rica has had slightly the better of it, leading the series 19-14-16 and, more importantly, has reached the World Cup finals three times (1990, 2002, 2006) since Honduras made its one and only appearance, in 1982.

Hondurans have made a greater impact on the international club scene, but the Catrachos keep finding themselves looking up at the Ticos in the standings. They can begin to rectify that issue on Wednesday.

Former Honduras coach Jose de la Paz, who led the 1982 Catrachos to the World Cup finals in Spain, is confident of Honduran victory.

"Honduras are an experienced side and should beat Costa Rica, while they've only beaten us once at home in the last 40 years or so," said De la Paz, according to "I think that we'll win the game because we've got a better team and will have the fans behind us, which has been decisive in the past. If you go through each team one by one, there's no doubt that the Honduran players are better."

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