Pride & Industry: Introduction Blog: HERE
As you might have read in the introduction to the blog series, and previous parts (the links of which are above), I have decided to create a challenge on Football Manager 2020 by taking charge of Barbados and trying to enhance their reputation in the world of football. The aim of the series is to try and develop football on the Caribbean island, and hopefully get the team qualified for some major tournaments and improve their FIFA world ranking. In this blog, we continue and conclude on the Lower Seeded section of the group stage for the 2022 World Cup campaign after having qualified for the 2021 Gold Cup.
NOTE: I would highly recommend you look at FMOverload‘s excellent Coaching Cuba series, as it was the inspiration for my series. Please check out the series here:
As read in Part Seven of the series (found HERE), my Barbados side had started their 2022 World Cup campaign, after a successful qualification to the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup, with a goalless draw away at Haiti, a result I was very pleased with. This was followed by a goalfest 4-2 friendly victory over Aruba at the Waterford Stadium, a result I was less happy with, but something of a learning curve for me. For this forthcoming part, we would complete the group games and conclude all of the fixtures for 2020 with two games against the US Virgin Islands and the home game against Haiti. This would be the toughest and most crucial game of the three. However the first game in this series of games was the home game against the US Virgin Islands in October – a fairly straight-forward game on paper, surely?
2nd WCQ Group Game – US Virgin Islands (h) – October 2020
It was another sold out game at the Waterford National Stadium with 12,000 partisan yellow and blue clad supporters crammed into the multi-purpose stadium to watch the first home game of the World Cup qualifiers. Clearly Friday night football in 26 degrees centigrade sunshine is the ideal environment to watch international football rather than a rainy Tuesday in November. A small continent of 100 Dashing Eagles‘ fans had made the long flight down to Bridgetown to support their team, hopeful of getting something from the upcoming fixture, although they were naturally outsung and outshouted by the veracious home support. This game was the first competitive home fixture since our outstanding qualification for our debut Gold Cup, so there was a carnival atmosphere amongst the Trident Tribe in the stands, with the fans still enthralled and bolstered for the upcoming continental competition.
However despite the carnival-like surroundings of the Waterford Stadium, the expectations from the home support (and myself if being truthful) had been raised, and thus we were all expectant for a Bajan win against the 199th ranked team in the world to get the World Cup qualifying going. Any potential dropped points in this game would hand the advantage back to Haiti with goal difference potentially making a huge impact in the outcome of the table. Therefore not only did I want to win, but I wanted to score a good number of goals against our opponents, so naturally I went with an attacking tactical mindset for this game. The 4-3-2-1 formation was maintained, but more impetus was made to get those goals against the US Virgin Islands, although breaching their defence organised by Miami FC goalkeeper (and best player with a CA of 72) Lionel Brown would not be easy.
Barbados 4-0 US Virgin Islands
The left inside-forward and Swindon Town player, Hallam Hope, opened the scoring after 28 minutes when Elijah Downey crossed across the penalty box towards the back post, where the onrushing Hope slotted the ball past the inside post on the volley. The advantage was doubled just before half-time when first-choice centre-back Krystian Pearce rose above the crowd congregating around the penalty spot, to divert a Nicoli Braithwaite corner into the back of the net. This gave us a comfortable 2-0 lead at the break, albeit we had to stay cautious of the USVI counter attack which had been worrying our defence during the first-half.
Thankfully our lead was extended not long after the restart when the right-sided inside-forward, Elijah Downey, nodded in a Braithwaite cross (his second assist of the evening) at the far post on the 52nd minute to score his second international goal. Even though we continued to threaten the Dashing Eagles’ goal throughout the second half, it wouldn’t be until the 89th minute when we found our fourth and final goal of the game. Hope got his second of the evening when another long Braithwaite cross found him unmarked on the edge of the penalty box. A nice 1-2 pass with midfielder Mario Williams was achieved to allow Hope to zip into some space before firing a low shot past Lionel Brown.
It was considered as ‘a job done’ against a side who may have had their chances to cause problems, but just didn’t have the attacking power to finish any of the 7 on-target shots they managed to create (a stat I wasn’t particularly happy with). Also scoring four goals past the US Virgin Islands without conceding considerably helped with the goal difference (GD) as it meant we leapfrogged Haiti in the table with a superior goal difference – a +4 GD compared to Haiti’s GD of +1. However it would be our group rivals whom we would face next at Bridgetown in a match that could potentially decide the outcome of the World Cup group, and which of the two countries would progress to the next round of World Cup qualifying.
3rd Group Game – Haiti (h) – October 2020
A win against Haiti in our third group game would put us in the strongest position for progression out of the group by nearly confirming our win of the group, providing we got at least a point in our final game against the US Virgin Islands (which I was confident about). With the final game of the group being Haiti versus the US Virgin Islands, I was hopeful of making that match a ‘dead rubber’ match by already qualifying from the group. Nonetheless, changes had to be made to the starting line-up due to fitness issues. Despite his excellent performance in the previous game, a low physical condition meant that Weymouth Wales’ Nicoli Braithwaite was replaced by Plymouth Argyle’s Tafari Moore at right-back. In addition, Hallam Hope would have to be switched to the bench due to playing the full 90 minutes in the previous match resulting in Elijah Downey switching to left inverted winger role, with star player Nick Blackman returning in his recognisable right inverted winger position to make his 11th appearance for the Bajan Tridents.
As always, we could depend on the Trident Tribe to turn up with another sold-out encounter in the Waterford National Stadium and ramp up the atmosphere to 11 to make it a formidable and daunting cauldron for the Haitian players to play in. Yellow and blue colours filling up the stands creating a “yellow wall” which certainly pumped up the entire Bajan team for the game. Nonetheless, 1400 fans from the western half of Hispaniola had travelled down to Bridgetown, hoping Les Grenadiers could snatch back control in the group. The weather for the match would be a balmy, if breezy, 27 degrees despite it being a Tuesday evening game – there’s no such thing as a “cold night in Bridgetown” in this region!
Barbados 2-1 Haiti
We started the game perfectly when the nation’s newest superstar Mario Vaughn opened the scoring after just four minutes – the Bajan Blitz in full effect once more much to the delight of the home supporters! The young striker started the move by passing to the marauding full back Tafari Moore, who then put a through ball to Nick Blackman. This allowed space to open up behind him, from which Vaughn ran into. When the ball was passed back by Blackman to Vaughn, the forward launched a thunderbolt into the top right corner of the goal to score his 5th international goal in 6 Barbados appearances! YEAAAAAHH! This lad is quickly becoming the shining light of this Barbadian FM project!
Sadly the lads could only hold onto the lead for twenty minutes before Haiti found their reply, although I felt it was against the run of play. Some very lapse marking in the box allowed Derrick Etienne enough time to square the ball across goal, past two hapless defenders, to the unmarked Bryan Labissière. The right-winger calmly guided the ball out of the reach of Akeem Holder and into the bottom right corner of our net to level the scores up! A very frustrating goal to concede there especially as he was meant to be closely marked! I was absolutely raging in the dugout at such rubbish defending, with the coaches and the unfortunate fourth official getting the full force of my annoyance from my defence!
Just when I thought we would frustratingly go into half-time on equal terms, we managed to regain control of the game (and the group) on the 41st minute. An excellent tackle from the sort-after Seb Hunte in midfield allowed him to regain possession of the ball before a long ball forward from Mario Williams found Elijah Downey in space on the edge of the penalty box. The forward had enough time to curl another cross across the box towards Nick Blackman running towards the far post. The Maccabi Tel-Aviv player managed to jump above his marker, Mechack Jérôme, to divert the cross into the far side of the goal to get his eighth goal in eleven appearances! Come on!!!
The second half was nervy and worrisome as Haiti were trying to find an equaliser, and match fatigue was affecting my players with the majority of them having also played the full match against the US Virgin Islands. Knowing this result would be enough, I basically made tactical changes to shut the game down completely by playing cautiously and just threatening on the counter-attack. With three defensive-minded midfielders in the centre of the field, I was confident we could hold firm against a formidable Haitian attack, even if we were conceding ball possession to our visitors. Thankfully my tactics worked and Haiti were restricted to a number of off-target shots which failed to trouble 16-year old Akeem Holder in goal (whom the media have started to dub ‘the Caribbean Casillas’). When the final whistle was finally blown, I let out a massive sigh of relief as the biggest hurdle of the group had been vaulted successfully. An impressive and professional 2-1 victory over our higher-ranked opponents was a huge confidence boost for the team, and ensured that we only needed a single point from our final group game to confirm progression in World Cup qualifying.
4th & Final Group Game – US Virgin Islands (a) – November 2020
For the final group game of the World Cup qualifying and final match of the 2020 schedule, there were very few changes to the 23-man squad which was selected for the qualifying games in the previous month. Only Nicoli Braithwaite would be missing the match due to an abdominal strain (I didn’t want to ask any further questions how he managed the injury…), meaning BDFSP’s Kadeem Atkins was called-up to replace him in that secondary right-back role in the squad. Whilst San Diego’s Omani Leacock was also dropped from the squad, as he wasn’t playing any games with the USL Championship side and severely lacked match fitness, and so was replaced with the experienced winger Rashad Jules (also from BDFSP).
Although I was confident of getting the needed point against the 202nd team in the world, we certainly couldn’t be complacent in this game, especially after having to make the 8 hour flight from Barbados to play away from home at the Lionel Roberts Stadium in the US Virgin Islands’ capital of Charlotte Amalie. Also considering the game was being played on the evening of Friday the 13th, the omens were perhaps not looking too favourable, I just hope Jason Voorhees doesn’t turn up in the opposition’s starting eleven, or we end up walking under ladders or smashing any mirrors!! Nonetheless, for a city with an illustrious history and links to the famous pirates of yore, I was still hopeful of delivering a smash-and-grab raid and coming away with the glittering treasure of qualification!
US Virgin Islands 0 – 3 Barbados
In front of under a third of supporters in the 9,000 capacity multi-use Lionel Roberts Stadium (also home to the fabulously named New Vibes FC), the Bajan Blitz was in full effect once again as we managed to open the scoring within the opening ten minutes of the match. Louisville City’s Hadan Holligan picked up a loose pass on the edge of the penalty area to thwack a low shot into the bottom right corner of the net to score his sixth international goal and give us an early advantage. Alas despite going ahead, we were unable to extend our lead as chances kept being missed throughout the first half. Although we were not troubled by the home side during the first period, I wasn’t happy that we hadn’t extended our lead at the half-time break with centre-forward Kemar Headley missing a couple of golden opportunities. Having missed so many chances, I was starting to think whether the Friday 13th vibes were coming to haunt us, and that I may have to do a “Barry Fry” to ward off the evil spirits for the second half.
Thankfully only a few minor changes were needed at half-time to get the team going even more attacking, and it eventually provided dividends when we finally found the second of the evening after 70 minutes, much to my relief especially as I didn’t need to urinate in all four corners of the pitch to dispel any potential bad spectres. That man Nick Blackman came trumps once again volleying in at the back post from an Ackeel Applewhaite cross from the left-hand by-line. The points were confirmed four minutes later when substitute, Mario Vaughn coming on for the ineffective Headley, showed his prowess by getting his sixth international goal in his seventh international appearance. A Blackman cross from just outside the area was diverted by the head of Vaughn to send it beyond Dillon Pieffer in the Haitian goal and ensure we would win the World Cup qualifying group. There was still enough time for the home side’s Dusty Good (WHAT A NAME!) to do bad when he earned himself two yellow cards to be dismissed in injury-time and leave the USVI finishing the game with 10 men.
This result confirmed our group win having accumulated ten points from our four World Cup qualifying games. It also meant that the final group game between Haiti and USVI did become a dead-rubber match, meaning that despite Haiti’s 4-0 win against the Dashing Eagles, they would still finish three points behind us as we confirmed our progression to the next round. Having the best attack and defence in the group showed that we had certainly deserved our group finish having only conceded just the single goal from the qualifying games. Our progression also saw us progress further up the FIFA world rankings, now rising to the heady heights of 131st in the world – a rise of 29 places so far during my management tenure!
Our prize for winning Group F of the Lower Seeded draw was a tasty-looking quarter-final clash against FMOverload’s Cuba (who themselves had considerably risen the rankings and were now ranked in 157th), and a potential semi-final against the winner between El Salvador and Curaçao (ranked 81st and 83rd in the FIFA world rankings respectively). Considering we avoided the heavyweights of Canada and Trinidad & Tobago in the draw and wouldn’t face them until the playoff final, I was very, very pleased with the fixtures albeit they would still be tricky to traverse in their own rights. Nonetheless, they would also be exceptional ‘warm-up’ matches for 2021, and ideal preparation before taking part in our inaugural Gold Cup! Next year would be a massive year for football in Barbados!!
Please follow my friend FMOverload on Twitter @FMOverload_, and check out their blog at https://fmoverload.home.blog/. It is an absolutely brilliant Football Manager blog and I would highly recommend you check it out, especially when they explore their new FM21 saves!