Heavy favorite Mexico look to end Haiti's feel-good run at Gold Cup
GLENDALE, Arizona -- It's difficult to think of a semifinal of a major international tournament with as much of a David and Goliath feel as Haiti against Mexico on Tuesday in State Farm Stadium.
Mexico has been the favorite to win the Gold Cup from before the tournament began, as it almost always is, while Haiti is in the semifinal for the first time. The 3-2 comeback victory over Canada had the inhabitants of the Caribbean island celebrating in the streets of Port-au-Prince.
"It was a proud feeling [seeing people celebrating]," said Haiti coach Marc Collat on Monday. "We are aware that we are bringing a lot of happiness to the people, who don't see happiness daily."
"In Haiti there are a lot of problems, so if there is anything that can make them happy, we have to give them all we have," said Haiti player Steeven Saba, who recovered from a three-year absence in the game due to surgeries to make the Gold Cup. "We play with heart for them and hopefully we get a win tomorrow."
The hero of that win over Canada, 25-year-old forward Nazon Duckens, scored once in 10 games last season for St. Mirren, having previously played in the Belgian second division, at Oldham Athletic and Coventry City. Goalkeeper and captain Johny Placide is a free agent, having left Oldham at the end of last season.
You're unlikely to see a Mexican playing his club football at Boundary Park get a call-up anytime soon.
"For Haiti, it is a first semi [at the Gold Cup], maybe the country will wait a long time to be back in a semi, but we are here, we are part of the last four, therefore we hope to have to make an impact," said Collat.
Speaking beforehand and as if to highlight the differing long-term ambitions of these two teams, Mexico coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino -- who is suspended from Tuesday's game after picking up two yellow cards -- talked at length about the growth required in a national team to reach the true international elite and used the example of Spain as the only team to achieve that jump in recent years.
"There's no reason to think that any other association can't do exactly the same, adding in a good generation of players," said Martino, implying that that will be his task with Mexico.
But despite the differing origins and ambitions, Haiti is the form team, the "revelation" of the Gold Cup, according to Martino.
The Haitians have won all four of their games so far, defeating Costa Rica to top Group B and then stunning a confident Canada in the quarterfinal.
This promises to be a tricky assignment for El Tri against a team is physical, hits on transitions and is effective when it does attack. Haiti's average possession per game so far this tournament is 38.1 percent, compared to Mexico's 66.1 percent, while the Caribbean side has completed 779 pass over the four games in the Gold Cup, which is less than half of Mexico's 2,003.
Not that any of those stats makes this any easier for Mexico. In fact, Haiti is the type of team that tends to cause Mexico problems and Martino will be looking to cut out the error that saw Martinique only lose 3-2 in the group stage and Costa Rica tie 1-1 over the 120 minutes of the quarterfinal.
"Haiti is a team that is tremendously effective in taking maximum advantage of any chance the rival gives it to be in the game," said Martino. "Costa Rica allowed them to and they took advantage, turned the game around, Canada as well, [Haiti] is an opponent that you have to play against for the whole 90 minutes with a lot of intensity and a lot of care."
Both coaches talked about the complications of having only 72 hours between the quarterfinal and semifinal, but Martino is not going to be thinking about resting any players.
"There's no rest in a semifinal, nobody will be left out because they have to rest, what we will try to do is avoid risks," said Martino.
Andres Guardado has been nursing a slight muscle issue, but has prepared for the game as usual and Martino wasn't ruling him out.
For Mexico, a loss is almost unthinkable, while for Haiti picking up a Gold Cup final place would be cause for more celebrations.