Common wisdom surrounding Group H is that three teams are competing for a single spot in the round of 16, given Spain’s superiority over the rest of the pack. A strong defence will therefore be an important factor for the other hopefuls in the last of the eight
Before Thursday, it seemed that Honduras had little to worry about defensively. They boasted the meanest back line in the final round of their qualifying campaign, conceding just 10 goals in 11 games. Los Catrachos boast in their rearguard the likes of Maynor Figueroa, whose reputation continues to grow in the Premier League, and in Victor Bernardez a player at one Europe’s biggest clubs, Anderlecht. In spite of such talent however, Thursday’s 2-2 friendly draw with Belarus in Austria revealed some awful defending from the Central Americans. Marking at set-pieces often seemed non-existent, and Anton Putsilo found it all too easy too head in Belarus’ first goal from a corner. His second was even easier, as an unchallenged cross found him in acres of space in the six-yard box to slot home the easiest of finishes. The full-backs, Sergio Mendoza and Oscar Garcia, continually failed to track back, allowing the Belarusian wide players the freedom of Villach to put dangerous crosses into the box.
Reinaldo Rueda decided to rest Figueroa, who plays at centre-back for his country, as opposed to the left-back spot he occupies at Wigan, to allow Bernardez and Osman Chavez the chance to audition for the other central defensive role alongside him in Rueda’s system. Neither covered himself in glory. Chavez faces a summer of uncertainty following his release from Platense. After unsuccessful trials at Celtic and Tottenham last year, it seems likely that the 25-year-old will try once again to find a club in Europe – however, the experiences of Bernardez should perhaps tempt him to think again. Bernardez’s lack of opportunities at Anderlecht, where he has featured just 10 times in two seasons, is part of a wider, recurring frustration for Rueda – a lack of first team football for the ‘legionnaires’ (the name given to los Catrachos stars who play abroad). It’s a problem that affects every area of the squad – up front David Suazo has barely played having struggled for fitness and form on-loan at Genoa, while maverick midfielder Julio Cesar de Leon was farmed out on-loan to Serie B with Torino. The situation has made the absence of Carlo Costly all the more galling, as one of the few Legionnaires who was playing regular football. Any rust shown by those players who have spent large parts of the season kicking their heels on the bench will have to be well and truly shaken off by the time los Catrachos kick-off their campaign in Nelspruit on June 16.
There were some bright spots to emerge from the Belarus friendly however. De Leon gave Honduras the lead with a perfect 30-yard free -into the top corner, showing that the team has no shortage of threats from set-pieces with Guevara, Figueroa and Bernardez also being free-kick specialists of some repute. Talisman Carlos Pavon was at the hub of most of their fine attacking play during his time on the pitch, while his second half replacement, Georgie Welcome, gave a strong, bustling cameo, netting a last-gasp equaliser with a towering header. Welcome’s impact may have gone some way to winning over those sceptics unconvinced that he is the right man to fill the boots of the absent Costly.
The good news for Rueda is that they still have two more friendlies in Austria to iron out the hiccups before heading to South Africa, taking on Azerbaijan on June 2 and facing the sterner test of Romania three days later. Los Catrachos need to restore confidence in the defence which served them so well in qualifying.