Re-evaluating what we know about CONCACAF after round one

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Three surprise results later, it’s far more difficult to know what to make of CONCACAF. Even the results that were somewhat explicable developed in ways that prompted new questions. Are the U.S. defenders a bigger problem than we thought? Is Mexico really that far ahead of the rest of the region? Is Panama ready?

One round into CONCACAF’s final stage, it’s time to pause and reevaluate The Hex – assess our new knowledge and determine to what extend that we need to change our outlook for the rest of the tournament.

Let’s go from winners to losers:

Honduras – There’s a temptation to label winning at home as merely holding serve, a description which might be true for Mexico and the United States. But Honduras is not a perpetual World Cup qualifier, even if they did make 2010’s show. To take three points that their competitors for third are less likely to grab is a huge result. Perhaps more importantly, if the midfield led by Roger Espinoza and Boniek Garcia performs like this through the next nine rounds, the Catrachos are unlikely to be pulled into a battle for third. This is a team that could compete closer to the top of the standings.

Costa Rica – Particularly after failing to qualify for South Africa, the Ticos have become the region’s neglected power. For half an hour on Wednesday, Costa Rica dwelled in realms of the forgotten as they spotted Panama two goals. But coming back to claim a point, the Costa Ricans gave us a nudge, woke us up, and reminded us they’re weren’t that far from qualifying for a third straight World Cup in 2010. While Bryan Ruiz’s overhead, game-tying goal may be the type of effort you can’t write into the game plan, Jorge Luis Pinto’s team put themselves in position to benefit. A valuable road point should open our eyes, a little.

Jamaica – This game had blowout written all over it before kicking off, but Jamaica were able to get the round’s most surprising result. Parts of the Reggae Boyz’ result reek of an underdog riding a goalkeeping blinder, but applying that description to the entire match would understate Jamaica’s performance. They had real chances to take full points, and while earning a surprise result at Azteca shouldn’t vault them to the top of our Most Likely to Qualify lists, the draw was reminds us Jamaica have enough talent and athleticism to frustrate anybody in the region. Even Mexico.

source: ReutersMexico – They came out flat, and their fans let them know it. Second half boos and ironic cheers for the Jamaicans reminded El Tri that they’re playing under higher expectations. Whether the standard’s fair or not, teams like Jamaica aren’t supposed to trouble Mexico, especially at home. Still, it was only 90 minutes of a 900 minute tournament, and while ‘Chepo’ de la Torre’s side performed well below expectations, nothing we saw on Wednesday should convince us their round one disappointment was more than a one-off.

Panama – It’s hard to call any team a “big loser” one match into the tournament, but Panama was the team that lost the most on Wednesday. Not only did they give up a two-goal lead, they capitulated to one of the two teams they should be targeting for third place. We alluded to it in yesterday’s preview: The inability to play to the stakes could hurt the Canaleros early in the tournament. Their inexperience may have cost them two points they’re unlikely to reclaim at Estadio Saprissa.

United States – The somewhat strange-cum-freakish way it happened overshadowed the remainder of a disappointing performance, but Wednesday’s loss didn’t tell us anything new about the United States. They’re still not generating enough chances, have problems in defense, and have a surprising number of questions in midfield (both in personnel and style). But even though the team is not playing to fans’ expectations, they still project as the second-best team in the region. The fact that they almost got a result against a good Catracho team (that got strong individual performances) only affirms that status.

Kane scores early and late, England narrowly top Tunisia

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England’s 2018 World Cup debut began brilliantly, then appeared headed for a disappointingly familiar outcome, but was ultimately saved by Harry Kane who scored both goals in the Three Lions’ 2-1 victory over Tunisia in Volgograd on Monday.

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England came sprinting out of the starting blocks — so quickly they nearly took flight — and taking an early lead through Harry Kane in the 11th minute (WATCH HERE). John Stones‘ header was spectacularly saved by Mouez Hassen, but Kane was in the right place at the right time and swept home the rebound for his first World Cup goal (on his World Cup debut).

The opening half-hour was all England, with the likes of Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling cutting through the Tunisian midfield and defense with very little resistance and creating a half-dozen golden scoring chances. Unfortunately for Gareth Southgate‘s side, they couldn’t capitalize, and they were made to pay for it.

Kyle Walker caught Fakhreddine Ben Youssef with a raised arm as an innocuous cross came into the box, prompting referee Wilmar Roldan to blow his whistle and point to the penalty spot immediately. Ferjani Sassi stepped up and converted, just out of reach of Jordan Pickford, who perhaps got a fingertip on the ball (WATCH HERE), to make it 1-1 and negate an otherwise dominant first-half performance by England. It would be Tunisia’s only shot on goal for the game.

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England’s best chance to re-establish a lead came during a six-yard-box scramble just seconds before halftime. Alli’s header hit the crossbar and Stones badly scuffed — nearly whiffed — on the follow-up. Kane was dragged to the ground during the rest of the commotion, to no interest of Roldan.

It took far longer than anyone back home in England would have liked, but Kane grabbed the winner in the 91st minute, heading home from acres of space at the back post. Jordan Henderson got the first crack at heading the corner kick, but it was blocked and bound high into the air. Somehow, some way, Kane was unmarked and snuck his redirect just inside the post.

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Up next for England is a meeting with Panama on Sunday, a day after Tunisia take on Belgium, who thrashed the Panamanians, 3-0, on Monday.

VIDEO: Tunisia equalizes on controversial penalty kick

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England centerback Kyle Walker put his arm up to halt the forward progress of Fakhreddine Ben Youssef. Unfortunately for Walker, Ben Youssef was in the box and Walker’s elbow caught Ben Youssef’s face.

Referee Wilmar Roldan quickly whistled for a penalty kick and despite the protests from a half-dozen of England players and a check from the VAR, the called stood. Ferjani Sassi’stepped up to the spot and found the lower-left corner, just barely beating Jordan Pickford to tie the game in the 35th minute.

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How will England respond?

VIDEO: Captain Kane puts England on the board early

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It may be the easiest goal-scoring opportunity Harry Kane‘s ever had in an international competition, and he finished it as easy as you’d like.

Kane side-footed home after Tunisia goalkeeper Mouez Hassen made a terrific save on John Stone’s header off a corner, but the save was directed right into a wide-open Kane who was standing ready inside the six yard box. The 11th minute goal will surely settle some of the Three Lions’ nerves as they open their World Cup bid in Russia.

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After slow start, Belgium takes care of business against feisty Panama

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All it took was one goal to bring Belgium to life.

Following a frustrating first 45 minutes, in which Belgium put a pair of shots into the side netting and forced saves from Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, Dries Mertens 47th minute goal opened the floodgates, as Belgium went on to defeat Panama, 3-0, Monday afternoon in Sochi.

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But Panama never made it easy for the Belgians. From the opening whistle the CONCACAF nation showed its incredible spirit, chasing down Belgium all across the field and making life incredibly difficult for Belgium attackers Romelu Lukaku, Mertens and Eden Hazard. Hazard was hacked down all over the field, and while he did earn fouls and a few yellow cards were issued to Panamanian players, it was enough to get in Hazard’s head.

Two minutes into the second half, everything changed. A wonderstrike from Mertens opened the game, and forced Panama to attack and try and tie the match, which gave Hazard, de Bruyne and Lukaku more space to operate.

In the heat and humidity of the Sochi summer, Panama’s veteran defense began to tire, allowing de Bruyne the space to deliver a terrific assist to Lukaku in the box, putting Belgium up 2-0 in the 69th minute.

 

Six minutes later, Lukaku was put through on the break, chipping over Penedo to confirm the victory.

With the win, Belgium moves to the top of Group G. Up next for Belgium is Tunisia on Saturday, while Panama takes on England on Sunday.