It could be easy for Canada to look past Cuba, and for that reason, Friday's game (7:30 pm ET, Sportsnet One) may be closer than the FIFA rankings indicate. It’s hard to imagine that Cuba were one of the seeded teams – ranked 64th in the world – when the World Cup draw took place, but they’ve taken a nosedive since, dropping to 146th compared to Canada’s 61st place.
But ever since the Canadians lost their last game in Panama, head coach Stephen Hart has been preaching the importance of Friday’s game. And while the Canadian media has spent most of the time focusing on Tuesday’s match in Honduras, Hart hasn’t been looking past Cuba – a team that still hasn’t registered a single point in this round.
Leading up to the game, Hart reiterated on a number of occasions that, for whatever reason, the Cubans play better at away from home than they do in Havana. It’s perhaps because the pitch they play on in front of their home fans is a glorified cow pasture, but Hart highlighted Cuba’s narrow 1-0 defeats in both Panama and Honduras as reasons why the team should be respected.
If Canada can pick up a win over Cuba and Panama can beat Honduras in Panama City, then Les Rouges could head into San Pedro Sula needing just a point. Depending on how convincing the results are on Friday, a solid Canada win could set up a scenario in which they could lose in Honduras and still advance on goal difference.
Four months ago, Canada started this round of qualifying on the right foot by braving heat and terrible pitch conditions to pick up a valuable 1-0 win in Havana.
The victory continued a fine record that the Canadians have maintained against the Caribbean nation. In 10 all-time meetings between the two nations, Canada have won five times and lost just twice. The last time Cuba beat Canada was a 2-0 result at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., during the 2003 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Canada got their revenge in their next meeting at the 2005 Gold Cup by beating Cuba 2-1 in the same stadium.
Cuba’s only other win against Canada came just 10 years into Fidel Castro’s rule of the island country in 1975, a 4-0 thumping.
Cuba Team News
Although they’re officially out of the running, Cuba do still have a great deal to play for: The team is preparing for next year’s Caribbean Championship. The qualification for that takes place at the end of this month.
That tournament is important for Cuba as the Caribbean Championship is a 2013 Gold Cup qualifier, and for a team that is in a massive rebuilding mode, the next 12 months hold real importance.
As for what is expected of the Cubans this month, little is known. The team is reportedly low on funds and will arrive in Toronto on Thursday, a day the game, so they’re in for a bit of a shock when they arrive and find that the daytime high on Friday is a brisk 48 degrees. Come kickoff in the evening, it should be even colder and with winds coming off Lake Ontario, it could be an uncomfortable night for Cuba.
Canada Team News
Will Johnson is a welcome addition back to the Canadian team after missing the 2-0 loss in Panama due to yellow-card accumulation. But as Johnson returns, life begins without Dwayne De Rosario, who is still recovering from the knee injury he sustained last month in Panama.
Johnson, along with Olivier Occean, were the final two members of the squad to arrive in camp, meaning Wednesday’s session at BMO Field was the first practice with the entire squad involved.
The team seems to be in good spirits both physically and mentally. After training on Wednesday, Hart said a few of the players had some minor knocks but there weren’t any serious concerns.
Player to Watch
Canada: Will Johnson
The Real Salt Lake man's ability to link between the defense and the attack was certainly lacking last month in Panama as Canada struggled to create much in the way of chances in their 2-0 loss. Having him back in the lineup will take some of the burden off Julian de Guzman, who is the other defensive midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 formation that Canada customarily use.
Creating chances shouldn’t be too much of a problem for the Canadians, but having someone like Johnson back in the squad, who has a great deal of experience in the role he occupies, means they’ll have someone who will move forward when warranted but not shirk his defensive responsibilities.
Unavailable as of Oct. 11
Goalkeepers (3): Lars Hirshfeld (Vålerenga/Norway), Milan Borjan (Sivasspor/Turkey), Kenny Stamatopoulos (AIK/Sweden)
Defenders (7): Ante Jazic (Chivas USA), Kevin McKenna (FC Köln/Germany), Andre Hainault (Houston Dynamo), Marcel de Jong (FC Augsburg/Germany), Dejan Jakovic (D.C. United), David Edgar (Burnley/England), Mike Klukowski (APOEL/Cyprus)
Midfielders (7): Nik Ledgerwood (Hammarby/Sweden), Julian de Guzman (FC Dallas), Terry Dunfield (Toronto FC), Will Johnson (Real Salt Lake), Atiba Hutchinson (PSV Eindhoven/Netherlands), Pedro Pacheco (CD Santa Clara/Portugal), Patrice Bernier (Montreal Impact)
Forwards (4): Tosaint Ricketts (Vålerenga/Norway), Simeon Jackson (Norwich City FC/England), Olivier Occean (Eintracht Frankfurt/Germany), Iain Hume (Doncaster Rovers/England)