The only undefeated sides in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying will go head to head Friday when Panama welcome Mexico to Estadio Rommel Fernandez.
Panama, with one win and two draws, had been top of The Hex until Tuesday, when Mexico snuck a 1-0 win against Jamaica in Kingston and catapulted over three confederation rivals and into first place.
A second win on the bounce would surely put one foot into next year’s World Cup finals for Mexico, although Panama—the only side in the six-team mini-tournament to have never played in the competition proper—would surely value at least a point ahead of upcoming matches away to both the United States and Costa Rica.
Managers Julio Dely Valdes and Jose Manuel de la Torre will each be emphasizing individual matchups as kickoff approaches. Both teams fancy wing play as a preferred manner of buildup, and not coincidentally the battles in the wide areas figure prominently in the next five slides, which highlight the contest’s key matchups.
Panama's Alberto Quintero (right).
Alberto Quintero, who plays his club football in Panama for Chorrillo, will be one of Los Canaleros’ most-used attacking outlets over the 90 minutes on Friday.
The 25-year-old, who played briefly in Spain earlier in his career, has speed to burn and will look to get in behind Mexico left-back Carlos Salcido in Panama City.
Salcido is more known for his own attacking contributions (his cross set up Aldo De Nigris’ goal against Jamaica on Tuesday) than defensive abilities, so this could very well be an area Panama boss Julio Dely Valdes will look to exploit.
Mexico's Andres Guardado (left).
Against Jamaica, the Mexican wingers had little time on the ball as their hosts seemed to anticipate every move out wide.
Valencia’s Andres Guardado struggled for openings as a result, but managed to come on a bit in the latter stages of Tuesday’s match.
On Friday Guardado will be up against 23-year-old Carlos Rodriguez—a player almost exactly his size (Guardado stands 5'7") who should be able to match the 26-year-old in the pace department as well.
Guardado will have to rely on brains and tricks if he is to get much joy down the flanks in Panama City.
Panama's Blas Perez.
Panama’s top goal threat versus Mexico’s best defender.
Blas Perez, 32, is the top goalscorer remaining in CONCACAF qualifying (10) and is coming off a match in which he found the back of the net in a 2-0 win at home to Honduras.
Diego Reyes, meanwhile, was a colossus against Jamaica in Kingston, denying Garath McCleary with a pair of vital blocks and minimizing the space afforded the likes of Ryan Johnson and Jermaine Beckford.
Reyes, 20, is headed to Porto after the Confederations Cup. He recently helped Club America to victory in the Mexican Clausura.
Mexico's Giovani dos Santos.
Giovani dos Santos only played the final quarter-hour against Jamaica, but his introduction immediately added an element of creativity Mexico had sorely been missing until he came on.
Whether or not the 24-year-old plays from the beginning on Friday is yet to be seen, but he will almost certainly see the pitch at some point, and when he does he’ll be up against defensive midfielder Anibal Godoy.
Godoy, 23, plays for Chepo in the Panamanian League and is just one of several players in Valdes’ side who came through together at the U-20 level.
Mexico's Javier Hernandez.
Javier Hernandez had scored four of Mexico’s last five goals ahead of Tuesday’s match against Jamaica, and that it was Aldo de Nigris who found the back of the net in Kingston will no doubt have come as a relief to manager Jose Manuel de la Torre.
But Hernandez remains very much the talisman of this team, and he’ll be looking to get back on the scoresheet (his next goal will be his 33rd for El Tri) in Panama City.
In his way will be veteran defender and Panama captain Felipe Baloy, who just might have enough strength and experience to give the Manchester United forward a good matchup.