By Dylan Butler
ATLANTA – According to Cuba head coach Walter Benitez, Panama is the favorite in the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals at the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
For CONCACAF official notes about this game, click here.
“For me, Panama is a favorite because the path they walked to get here has been much better than ours,” Benitez said before his team’s training session Friday at the Georgia Dome. “They are less tired, they’ve been able to shuffle some players. This can give them a bit of an advantage.”
Julio Dely Valdes, Panama’s head coach, doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“This is the first time I hear of this,” he said. “Inside of our atmosphere with our players and coaching staff, we’re not thinking about this at all. We’re talking about soccer. It’s prohibitive to think that way.”
Panama, which finished atop Group A, is no stranger to the Gold Cup knockout stage. This is its fifth quarterfinal appearance and twice the team has advanced further, losing in the 2011 semifinals and falling in the 2005 final on penalty kicks to the United States on both occasions
Gabriel Torres, a midfielder who competes for Junior de Barranquilla in Colombia, has struck for all three Panamanian goals during the Group Stage.
“I think Gabriel, before joining the team, was prepared very well,” Valdes said. “We had already discussed with him that he was going to have participation from the very beginning. He’s come very hungry with a lot of desire. He prepared for the Gold Cup and now he’s reaping the benefits.”
Cuba, meanwhile, is playing in its second-ever quarterfinal. The Lions of the Caribbean last reached the knockout stage in 2003, losing to the United States.
Knowing it needed to win by four goals against Belize in its final Group C game, Cuba achieved that objective with a second-half stoppage time goal by Jenier Marquez Molina and an Ariel Martinez hat-trick.
“We’re living a very important moment, the attitude that the players showed in the last game. We reinforced it. We have to believe that we continue on, that this doesn’t end,” Benitez said. “We also have a country hoping and waiting for this game. Many people didn’t believe what the national team could do here and yet, look where we are, in the quarterfinals. We’re going to continue. That’s the mentality that we have right now.”
With that one victory, Marquez Molina commented, the country’s attitude has changed.
“Those who doubted us are now supporting us,” he said. “And those who were with us, on Facebook and everywhere, they’re writing to us, telling us to keep on.”
Known as a tight defensive team difficult to break down, Cuba has also changed the team’s perception a bit with the four-goal outburst against Belize.
“We’ve had problems in the past on the national team scoring goals,” noted Marquez Molina. “Now we can get a lot more and come out and win, like we all feel now in the quarterfinals.”
Should the two so-called favorites win here Saturday – Mexico faces Trinidad & Tobago in the other quarterfinal – it would set up a Panama-Mexico semifinal in Arlington, Texas. As intriguing as that encounter would be, Valdes isn’t looking that much into the future.