BY JAMES ROSS – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
This Sunday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup final will feature the pre-tournament favorite, the USA, against a slightly surprising opponent, Panama.
Not that Panama were considered a left field long shot. They still possess the potential to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil from CONCACAF, sitting two points back of Mexico with four matches still to play out.
Their side has plenty of experience down the spine of their formation, with goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, dominating centre back and team captain Roman Torres, and deep lying central midfielder Gabriel Gomez. Between the three of them, they possess over 250 international caps. The attack has centered around the excellent strike partnership of Blas Perez and Gabriel Torres, with winger Alberto Quintero providing a wild card who can open up any defence with his incisive dribbling and movement.
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This Panama side can head into the final with little pressure. They've achieved enough already to keep the fans happy back home, and an underdog tag can, at times, elicit a stress free performance allowing the long shot to emerge triumphant. The team's coaching tandem of twin brothers Julio and Jorge Dely Valdes are legends in Panama's soccer history, and they've done a fantastic job of getting the most out of this side over their previous five matches in this tournament.
While Panama possess a strong spine, and some good attacking options out wide up front, their weakness may be their inexperience at fullback, and in the centre of their defence. Team captain Torres partners hardnosed 19-year-old Roberto Chen in the centre of the defence, but Chen has at times looked rash, and he will have his hands full with the USA's attacking options. Ditto fullbacks Leonel Pariss and Carlos Rodriguez, who both look a bit lacking in composure when confronted with a skilled winger running at them. Mexico's Marco Fabian gave Pariss numerous problems during their semi-final Wednesday, and one has to feel the USA will target center back Chen and the two fullbacks as something they can exploit in the final match.
I believe that for Panama to have a chance in this match, they will need their midfielders to help contain striker Eddie Johnson, and the attacking trio of Landon Donovan and whichever two wingers the USA choose to start against Panama. Additionally, the Panama strikers will need to take whatever chances they can carve out, and wingman Quintero will need to have a match much like he had in both the Mexican games.
The USA must be considered strong favorites on Sunday. They possess a talented lineup from front to back. In all areas of the pitch they possess quality and depth. They've scored 19 times in their five matches, with Landon Donovan being involved in over half of their goals. New recruit Eddie Johnson has given the USA a more involved front man than Chris Wondolowski, and his impact has super-charged an already formidable attacking unit. Goalkeeper Nick Raimondo has produced (like his counterpart for Panama, Jaime Penedo) some stunning saves when called upon to do so. The American midfield has shown itself to be a winning combination of graft and creativity. And by and large, the defence has been resilient, organized and composed.
If the USA have had one area of weakness, it's been their ability to defend set pieces. They've looked a bit susceptible in this department, and if Panama can somehow find a way through early, and contain the USA's attacking options, it may be not go quite to script. The status of American manager Jurgen Klinsmann was still up in the air at this writing, and if he ends up being suspended that may have an effect on the outcome. I personally don't think it will be much of an issue. The team has played well and Klinsmann's influence may only be necessary if Panama somehow takes an early lead, or if the match stalemates until late, when the genius of that right substitute at the right moment may not be available with Klinsmann's absence.
I do not think it's going to be a defensive stalemate, as both teams are prolific in attack, and this game could end up being a high scoring affair, which isn't what one traditionally sees in a cup final.
I'm going with a 3-1 American victory. I'll be cheering for Panama, as I enjoy seeing an underdog upset the odds, but I think the USA are on too much of a roll for any team from this competition, let alone Panama, to spoil their party Sunday afternoon. Make sure you tune in to Sportsnet World Sunday at 4 pm EST/1 pm PAC to find out.