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Stalemate spells major blow for Jamaica's World Cup dreams

GOALLESS BATTLE: Jamaica's Garath McCleary, left, and Panama's Alcibiades Rojas fight for the ball (PA)

JAMAICA'S STRUGGLE to score goals continued under new coach Wilfried Schafer, who in his first match at the helm oversaw a cautious but creditable scoreless draw in Panama with 10-men last night.

But it was a familiar scenario for the Reggae Boyz in World Cup qualifying.

Rodolph Austin was sent off, both strikers were replaced by midfielders to try to avoid defeat and there was their inability to score goals.

In fact Jamaica failed to muster a single shot on target throughout a fierce contest, so a vast improvement – and flowing play - is urgently required when they tackle Costa Rica at the National Stadium in Kingston on Tuesday (September 10).

The Boyz are notoriously poor performers on their travels, and last night’s tie in Panama City showed no signs of that altering under recently installed German coach.

Schafer, brought in to replace stalwart Theodore Whitmore, shuffled his squad around and controversially brought back previously suspended duo Marlon King and Chris Humphrey.

He had chosen a predominantly English-based squad for his back-to-back World Cup contests in Panama and against Los Ticos on Tuesday, littered with forwards because he is aware that the Boyz desperately need goals and points.

Yet he opted for a 5-3-2 formation in Panama City, which failed to ignite any creativity on the pitch.

His Boyz were simply overwhelmed inside Estadio Rommel Fernandez, with talented midfielder Austin sent off on 58 minutes and King marking his U-turn to come out of international retirement with a yellow card for a foul after just 11 minutes.

Veteran shotshopper Donovan Ricketts was keep busy all night, making his first save in the eighth minute to deny Gabriel Torres’ left-footed drive from finding the bottom right corner. And the hosts kept trying their luck from outside the box, Anibal Godoy and Cecilio Waterman troubling the busy defence.

With O’Brian Woodbine replacing injured Alvas Powell seconds before half-time in defence, Schafer had an opportunity to mix things up after the interval but did not.

However, it became a disastrous second half. Panama piled on the pressure as the vocal home fans screamed for an overdue goal, the Boyz dealing well with the stream of corners ably led by the commanding Ricketts.

With Leeds United’s influential Austin given his marching orders just before the hour-mark, Schafer immediately shored up his three-man midfield by replacing the ineffective King with Marvin Elliott to leave Luton Shelton as the lone striker.

Shelton, the all-time top scorer for Jamaica, came close to breaking the deadlock with a powerful effort from the right side of the box, which flew narrowly above the target and virtually redundant keeper Jaime Penedo.

But seconds later Shelton was hauled off with attacking midfielder Jermaine Johnson given 27 minutes to help prevent the hosts from scoring in order to try and earn the Boyz a point.

Why Schafer failed to bring one of his three strikers warming the bench – Jermaine Beckford, Darren Matlocks and Theo Robinson – into the mix seemed foolhardy as victory was vital if the Boyz want to progress to have any hope of a World Cup spot.

SLIDE TACKLE: Panama's Roman Torres, front, and Jamaica's Luton Shelton jostle for possession (PA)

And although Panama were clearly missing leading striker Blas Perez and captain Felipe Baloy, they plugged away with neat moves and a flowing display.

In the final 10 minutes they kept the Boyz on their toes with a string of attacks, as they too are seeking to seal that fourth place play-off berth.

Jamaica’s Ricketts was uncharacteristically shown a late yellow card as the frustration of failure started to set in. The Boyz showed no fighting spirit as they seemed desperate to avoid defeat rather than attack.

Panama came perilously close to the goal they so deserved in the final minute, but Roman Torres’ header and Marcos Sanchez’s free-kick went narrowly high of the target.

Although the point for the Boyz, who also failed to find the back of the net in Honduras in their previous tie, was their second against Panama there was the positive aspect is that it was their first clean sheet since May’s stalemate friendly in the Bahamas against Tottenham.

It is back to the drawing board for Schafer with three matches to try and sneak into fourth place in the six-team group, which would earn a two-legged play-off against New Zealand to earn qualification for next year’s World Cup finals.

But that appears to be mission impossible following this dour display and the fact that Costa Rica, Tuesday’s opponents, thrashed USA in San Jose 3-1 to move top of the table.

The battle for fourth place hotted up last night after Mexico were stunned 2-1 by Honduras in Mexico City. Managerless Mexico tackle USA on Tuesday, having axed coach Jose Manuel de la Torre hours after the shock defeat for the Olympic champions.

Panama will be vying for fourth place in the group and face Honduras in the other group game this week.

The Boyz, seeking their first victory in their World Cup qualifying group, require nothing less than maximum points against Costa Rica on Tuesday to maintain their outside chance of qualifying for next year’s Finals in Brazil.

Schafer’s first match in Kingston is a straightforward do-or-die scenario.
With a dearth of talent to choose from, should he opt for a side that avoids defeat with another five-man defence then home fans at "The Office" will no doubt give him grief from the stands.

Unless he utilises his carefully selected squad by using those strikers and attacking midfielders on Tuesday, then Schafer’s time as coach looks to be short-lived.

Jamaica’s World Cup dreams appear to be over unless they can drum up three wins in as many matches, kicking off with table-topping Costa Rica, but they must vastly improve on their trip to Panama and show some flair.

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