Defeat to Turkey highlights weakness
30 May ~ For those of us who still hanker after a narrowed field of 16 teams at major international tournaments, the presence of third-place Concacaf teams such as Honduras does little to heighten the anticipation for the next World Cup. At South Africa 2010 they failed to score in all three group games, drawing with Switzerland after losing to Chile and Spain. Judging by their performance in a 2-0 reverse against Turkey at Robert F Kennedy Stadium in Washington DC last night, they will again struggle to stir the scoreboard in Brazil.
Things began promisingly enough on a night when the vast majority of a lively and raucous 20,723 crowd were cheering their every touch. In the first half they were marginally the superior team, enjoying a flurry of chances just before the break. There is an overtly English approach to their game, with long balls out of the back aimed at the bustling twin forwards named Jerry – Palacios and Bengtson. This more direct route to the goal signified a determination to show they were through pussy-footing around with strings of short passes on the road to nowhere, and was more than enthusiastically welcomed by their native support. Honduras no longer look scared to score.
The shooting, though, when it came, was erratic – Honduras managed only one shot on target all night. And the downside of the English style became apparent in the second half. There was a dearth of ideas in the final third, too much wasted possession out of the back and a surfeit of sloppy mistakes in midfield and defence. Finally, when the Turks suddenly stopped being the rent-a-team World Cup warm-up guys and stepped it up a class, the tiring Hondurans were torn apart by slick passing along the ground.
Both Turkish goals – from Saint–Étienne striker Mevlut Erdinc and Fenerbahce midfielder Caner Erkin – were ruthless but necessary punishment for slack marking, lack of speed, and amateurish clearances from defensive play that looked at times panicked, desperate and improvised. It's significant too how much younger this Turkish team are than the Hondurans, who have retained many faces from South Africa four years ago. Anderlecht winger Andy Najar, at 21, was one of only two outfield players on the Honduran 20-man squad last night below the age of 26. He looked very fast in his MLS days for DC United, but he wasn't fast enough to out-pace the Turkish defence.
Since the retirement of their diminutive archetypal Latin playmaker Amado Guevara, Honduras have lacked a No 10 to manipulate the game from the middle of the park, although such a player seems to be an increasing rarity nowadays. In qualifying, they were helped by a rare 2-1 away win in Mexico, and relied on the goals of the pace-averse 31-year-old Carlo Costly, who never left the bench last night, and Bengtson, who right now can't find a starting spot for New England Revolution. They finished seven points behind the Concacaf final group winners, the US, benefiting from Mexico's decline to take the third automatic qualifying spot.
In Group E, both Ecuador and Switzerland must fancy their chances of making the quarter-finals, alongside a France team who can only fail to progress if they consciously feed on the thighs of local poisonous dart frogs. The absence of a team like Turkey only serves to highlight that the World Cup does not feature the best national teams in the world, but it does feature too many notional teams that are in the world. Honduras have two weeks to sharpen up before FIFA sharpens the knives on Concacaf's generously allocated 3.5 qualifying spots. Ian Plenderleith