PANAMA CITY -- Things are heating up in Group C of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying and two nations at the geographical extremities of the confederation are right in the thick of the action.
Panama and Canada -- who face off Tuesday for the second time in five days -- are battling Honduras for the two final-round spots on offer in the group.The Canadians won the "series" opener 1-0 at home in a tightly contested match Friday night.
The win not only jumpstarted the northerners' hopes of making the hexagonal for the first time in over a decade, it also launched the Canadians past Panama into first place in the group.With the rematch looming, though, that advantage could be short-lived.
"It's a very important game for Panama, and Canada, too," said Canadian veteran Julian de Guzman. "I think we're in a good position, and I see there's a lot of pressure on Panama. In the end, Panama is the favorite for this game.But it's important for us to approach the match with the same mentality that we did the last one, and see if we can get at least a point."
The midfielder characterized Panama as the favorite for the game and the group title, reflecting growing belief that the level of Panamanian soccer has increased to the point that the Central Americans can be considered one of the emerging powers of the region.
The Canaleros' play of late has taken them to another level, after the Central Americans made the semifinals of the 2011 Gold Cup and took an early lead in semifinal qualifying by knocking off favored Honduras on the road on the first matchday.Playing at home on Tuesday, Panama has every intention of following up on those successes by snatching back the group lead.
"Panama has played very well in the last ten or fifteen matches," said De Guzman, "also in the Gold Cup, and now in the group. I think Panama continues to have a good team, and good players. I know that Panama needs to get points at home."
Panama and Canada also shared a group at last year's Gold Cup, with the Panamanians advancing while the Canadians were disappointingly knocked out in the first round. This year, both teams hope to make the final round of regional qualifying, but the group leaders will be pressured by an improving Honduran side.
The third-place Catrachos are just three points back of Canada with a home fixture scheduled against winless Cuba on Tuesday.Obviously, the Group C table has the potential tighten even further.
Still, the Canadians are staying relaxed, saying that the pressure is on Panama to hold serve after losing on the road last week.
"I think it's my responsibility to make everybody relax as much as possible," said Canadian head coach Stephen Hart. "We know what to expect, we're away from home; it's going to be a very different crowd than playing at home of course.
"But we have to deal with that, that's the way it is in CONCACAF."
Wet weather is expected on Tuesday night in Panama City. Complicating matters further, the Canadians will be without usual starters Will Johnson and Olivier Occean. But none of that will change Panama's game plan at home, according to its coach.
"With the qualifiers being played at our field, we're going to arrive tomorrow to score goals," said Panamanian head coach Julio Dely Valdes. "This is a chance to continue to build on what we've done thus far."
These two teams won't meet again in an official match until a potential date in the final qualifying round next year -- that's if both can qualify for the hexagonal. First, Panama will host Honduras next month before closing with a visit to Cuba, while Canada will get the Cubans at home, before a tough trip back to Central America to face Honduras on what promises to be an exhilarating final match day.