Canada face Jamaica twice across the next week in CONCACAF Nations League action, beginning Friday in Kingston, Jamaica and concluding Tuesday in Toronto. Victory across the two-legged tie gives Canada a berth in the Nation’s League semi-finals held next year at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium and further qualifies CanMNT for the 2024 Copa América.
Jamaica topped their Nation’s League Group B to meet Canada who qualified directly to the quarterfinals as one of four seeded teams. But make no mistake, this match-up with Jamaica will be a real test. Half of Jamaica’s roster ply their trade in the English Premier League or the English Football League Championship. Also, Canada has not tasted victory in Jamaica in over three decades.
Related read: Mauro Biello says Canada must ‘manage the chaos’ as they look for first win in Jamaica since the 1980s
In the lead-up to these matches Canada have played but one non-competitive match since their Gold Cup exit in July, losing badly to Japan. Jamaica have played four competitive matches.
Canada and Jamaica last met in that memorable game in March 2022 at BMO Field where Canada emerged with a 4-0 victory to seal World Cup qualification for the first time in 36 years.
How do Canada match up with Jamaica this time around?
Between the sticks Canada and Jamaica are a wash. Jamaica’s Andre Blake is one of MLS’s top keepers and has been a reliable presence for his country for a number of years. On the other hand, Dayne St Clair and Maxime Crépeau are also top keepers who hold their own in MLS. But, Milan Borjan will keep his gloves, as hinted by Mauro Biello.
Although he’s not getting any younger, Borjan continues to play well with Slovan Bratislava and has considerable European experience over the last few months. Borjan has played in six Champions League qualifiers, two Europa League qualifiers and four UEFA Conference League matches just this season.
Canada’s attack vs. Jamaica’s defence
Canada’s attacking players could not be coming into this window much colder. Jonathan David has not scored for Lille since August, Cyle Larin has not scored in La Liga since May, and the recently added youngster Jacen Russell-Rowe has been used sparingly by the Columbus Crew over the last three months. And with only one international game in the last four months, there has not been sufficient opportunity to find success on this front either. Canada will need at least one of these strikers to turn their fortunes around, and quickly.
Related read: Canada boss Mauro Biello hails ‘mentally strong’ Jonathan David and Cyle Larin amid goal droughts
Jamaica’s defence, invariably a four-man back-line, is anchored by veteran centre-backs Ethan Pinnock and Damian Lowe. However, outside backs have been a revolving door for the Reggae Boyz over the past three months with several different players seeing the field of late. Canada’s attack will look to exploit their strength out wide and target Jamaica’s flanks.
Depending on where Alphonso Davies lines up on the left, there will be much riding on his performance. Always expected to draw a crowd of opposition defenders when he has the ball it will be incumbent upon his teammates to find open spaces in support, and then take advantage of any moments of numerical superiority that ensue. To this end, the in-form Tajon Buchanan will need to step up on the opposite flank.
Jamaica’s attack vs Canada’s defence
The Canadian defence will, as usual, prove to be a wildcard. Although Canada finished the WCQ Octagonal with the top-rated defence, giving up just seven goals in 14 games, it has struggled since then. Some of these struggles can be attributed to playing tougher non-CONCACAF opponents but the primary area of concern remains in the centre of defence.
Biello’s squad selection includes veteran Steven Vitória, who despite his overall reliability, is now 36 and not the fleetest of foot. Kamal Miller has also been selected. However, Derek Cornelius’ inclusion may prove pivotal if he can bring his form with Swedish club Malmö FF, who just finished their season as the Swedish Allsvenskan champions, to the Canada setup.
As much as Canada brings in cold and out-of-form attackers, the Jamaican attack is hardly firing on all cylinders either. Jamaica will be expected to field a front three of Demarai Gray, Michail Antonio, and Leon Bailey, an attack as feared as any in CONCACAF.
Veteran English-born striker Antonio has just two goals for West Ham. Leon Bailey has three goals for Aston Villa but has also lost his starting spot. Gray left England and has scored just once in eight games (seven starts) for Al-Ettifaq in the Saudi Pro League.
Meanwhile, Shamar Nicholson only scored his first goal of the season last weekend in Ligue 1 where he is on loan at Clermont Foot. Romario Williams with 15 goals for USL side Switchbacks FC this past season has also been called into the Jamaican squad. However, by comparison, CanMNT-eligible striker Tani Oluwaseyi scored 16 USL goals for San Antonio FC and is barely on the Canada radar.
Control of the midfield
The outcome of this match will ride on who wins the midfield battle. Midfield has often been a position of concern for Jamaica, and this window does not break the mould. However, Canada, sans Stephen Eustáquio, has also shown itself to have midfield deficiencies. Thankfully, a fully fit and in-form Eustáquio is available to Biello.
The diminutive midfielder Bobby De Cordova-Reid is the key to Jamaica’s attack, as he provides the link to the potent front three. Canada’s game plan in the middle is sure to include some provision to isolate him from the ball in order to starve Jamaica’s attack from service. The remainder of Jamaica’s midfield contingent are primarily defensively focused players.
As noted, Canada will have Stephen Eustáquio back from last month’s injury, when he was sorely missed by Canada in the friendly with Japan. The Porto man has shown himself to be arguably Canada’s most important player. While playing a more free-ranging role with Porto, expect Eustáquio to occupy the role of pivot at the base of Canada’s midfield where he can control and direct the play of his teammates.
Ismaël Koné has not had the start to the season with Watford that he had hoped for but his physical presence will be needed for Canada to boss the middle of the park. The rest of the Canadian midfield selection will be dependent on Biello’s tactical formation, but if Canada wants to come through victorious in this two-game series, they will need to dominate and control the centre of the pitch.
How will Biello’s Canada line up?
While there appears to be a consensus that Biello will continue to roll with the three centre-back formation his predecessor John Herdman favoured during the final year of his tenure, this is far from certain. It must be pointed out that Herdman went with a four-man back-line featuring Cornelius and Doneil Henry in the middle in Canada’s dour nil-nil draw at Independence Park during the Octagonal. In addition, for the return leg at BMO Field Herdman again went with four at the back with Henry partnered with Scott Kennedy. Only Cornelius has been called into the CanMNT fold this window.
Most windows during the Octagonal featured three matches which necessitated Vitoria to rest in the middle match. With the need for load management not a factor this window, expect Vitoria to play both matches.
Despite Miller having played the lion’s share of matches as the left centre-back for Canada over the last couple years, expect Cornelius to get the nod. Fresh off winning the Swedish league title, and a notable contributor to the victory, he is the most in-form Canadian centre-back.
Left and right fullback spots are in the capable hands of any two of Alistair Johnston, Sam Adekugbe or Richie Laryea. The rest of Biello’s set-up cannot be predicted with certainty given he has only managed the team just once to date.
However, given that the midfield battle will prove to be the ultimate factor in this match-up, expect Biello to roll with four or five midfielders. A 4-4-2 diamond could feature Davies and Buchanan as outside midfielders with Eustáquio and Koné down the middle. Should he go with a 4-2-3-1 then expect Jonathan Osorio to start with them.
The weather forecast for Kingston is calling for upwards of 70-100 mm of rain. Should the game proceed under such torrential conditions, the match could literally become bogged down where neither team will wish to make a mistake and concede a goal.
Such weather conditions in Kingston may favour a safety-first approach with an emphasis on staunch defence. With Canada away, this may play into their hands where a draw may suffice for the first leg. As it stands it may come down to a game-time decision by the American officiating crew led by MLS referee Tori Penso.
The return match at BMO Field on Tuesday evening will not be much better, as it is forecast to be a cold, wet affair itself with 15-20 mm of rain to fall with temperatures just above the freezing mark.