Can El Tri maintain perfect start to qualifying campaign?

El Tri Panama

Panamanian fans will be out en force Wednesday night as Los Canaleros” host Mexico in a World Cup qualifier. (Photo by Miguel Tovar/LatinContent via Getty Images)

El Tri is in Panama tonight hoping to overcome the Canalero road-block as the Concacaf World Cup qualifying campaign continues.

Team Mexico has not won a qualifier in Panama in 21 years (a 1-0 win on July 16, 2000 was followed by a 1-1 draw on March 30, 2005, followed by two straight scoreless draws – June 7, 2013, and Nov. 15, 2016).

In fact, the Central Americans denied El Tri a perfect 3-0-0 start during the 2006 qualifying calendar with that 1-1 tie in 2005. El Tri has never started its World Cup qualifying slate with three straight wins, so a victory tonight in Panama City would be a first.

It won’t be easy, to be sure, as the Canaleros sit in second place in the Concacaf table with 4 points after two contests, just 2 behind Mexico. And Estadio Rommel Fernández should be full of fans, another first in this cycle as El Tri hosted Jamaica in an empty Estadio Azteca and Mexico’s 2-1 win in Costa Rica on Sunday was played in front of only 3,000 fans at Estadio Nacional in San José.

El Tri vs Panama, by the Numbers

Mexico is 15-5-2 vs Panama all time, with a +28 goal differential (42 goals for, 14 goals against).

El Tricolor’s only two losses to Panama came in the 2013 Gold Cup (once in the group stage and again in the semifinals, both by the same 2-1 score-line).

The last meeting between the two Concacaf rivals was just over two months ago in Nashville, Tennessee. El Tri came away with a comfortable 3-0 triumph with goals supplied by Diego Lainez (21’), César Montes (57’) and Henry Martín (90+1).

Once again, coach Gerardo Martino will be absent from the sidelines, still in Mexico City recovering from surgery to repair a detached retina. So far in his El Tri career, “Tata” is 19-4-2 vs Concacaf teams heading into tonight’s match. Assistant coach Jorge Theiler will be calling the shots.

Line-up changes

The condensed nature of the qualifying schedule was always going to require liberal substitution patterns and line-up juggling. Seven players started both games thus far, so expect to see some new faces in tonight’s line-up.

We know for sure that two of the seven will miss out on the Panama game – winger Alexis Vega suffered an ankle injury in Costa Rica, while midfielder Edson Álvarez is suspended after picking up his second yellow card against the Ticos. Orbelín Pineda, Uriel Antuna or Sebastián Córdova are capable replacements for Vega, while Luis Romo is a natural to step into Edson’s role in front of the back four.

Of the other five, goalie Guillermo Ochoa would seem to be the best bet to go 3-for-3 in starts. Another, striker Rogelio Funes Mori missed easy scoring chances in both games and Henry Martín is likely to get the nod in the point of attack.

The remaining three are all on the back line – central defenders Néstor Araujo and César Montes, plus left fullback Jesús Gallardo. All three could be given a rest. Julio César Domínguez – the starter at right back against Costa Rica – could move inside along Gilberto Sepúlveda, though I suspect the veteran presence of Araujo is preferred. Osvaldo Rodríguez could spell Gallardo.

The next round of qualifiers for El Tri is scheduled for early October with Mexico set to face Canada (Oct. 7) and Honduras (Oct. 10) at home, followed by a trip to El Salvador (Oct. 13).