Who would have thought that a football match between Aruba and Montserrat (17th November) could be so important? The format of the Nations League qualifiers has created a once in a lifetime opportunity for both Montserrat and Aruba to achieve what would normally be deemed impossible – qualification for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The competition is unusual – a 34 team League, in which only 4 games are played. The top ten qualify for the finals, along with highest ranked 6 teams in the region who have all been given a bye.
The computer generated fixtures also seems to be working in the favour if the smaller nations. There are ten teams with a 100% record after the first two games, and eight of these still have to play each other. So ten points should mean a top ten finish. For Aruba that means two wins, from their remaining two games – against Montserrat and St Lucia. Nine points could be enough too, so a win for Montserrat will keeps them in contention. The tournament is so close that after round three there could still be a dozen teams looking for a win from their last game to qualify.
It is really difficult to weigh up the relative ability of each side. What we have learnt so far is that the computer rankings clearly don’t relate to the current strengths. Even the bookmakers are now reluctant to price up games in this tournament. Montserrat has only conceded two goals in two games, despite having no recognised centre halves. Aruba appear to be stronger. The population of the Island is far larger than that of both Montserrat and its diaspora put together. Aruba has its own domestic league but still supplements its squad with European born players. Montserrat has a very thin squad and is more dependent on its top players being available.
Aruba has had some high-quality Dutch players to choose from. Unfortunately for them, this doesn’t include Denzel Dumfries of PSV, who has been capped by Aruba but now plays for Holland. But they do have the experienced Gregor Breinburg who has also played in the top flight in Holland and now plays for NEC in the Eerste Divisie. It’s difficult to compare him to Monserrat’s star player, Lyle Taylor, except to say that Taylor, once referred to as “the Montserrat Messi”, still has a silver rating on FIFA.
Like Montserrat, who has Willie Donachie, Aruba has an experienced and well travelled manager, someone better known as an Assistant at the bigger clubs. No stranger to Aruba, he is a Dutchman with an Aruban wife who already had a home on the Island. So well-travelled is he that an article once appeared on a Dutch football website which was called “Where in Martin Koopman?” The answer was Oman (briefly). Like Willie Donachie he is having an impressive tournament. Aruba is unbeaten so far and that includes a very creditable away draw in Guadeloupe and a 3-1 win against Bermuda.
So, can Montserrat win? Can Aruba go all the way to the Gold Cup? It’s really hard to predict. Neither side has qualified for even a Caribbean Cup before, but a win for one of them puts them on the brink of immortality. Both sides are well organised and can keep possession. Aruba has committed the most fouls in the tournament so far and has had only 9 shots at goal. Don’t expect a classic, don’t expect a goal fest. But for the winner, there will be a long agonising wait for the final decisive match of the tournament.