Separated by only one goal in goal difference, Cayman and Antigua & Barbuda knew that a loss Sunday could spell disaster to either of their aspirations at qualifying atop the Group C standings in the Digicel Caribbean Championship.
Midfield gridlock aptly describes the opening 15 minutes of play, with neither team able to maintain possession.
The home crowd got a scare after quarter of an hour when Ireland based replacement goalkeeper, Tuda Murphy (one of several wholesale changes to the starting lineup), almost got embarrassed trying to claim a loose ball he had no hope of getting.
Mario Carter and Calvin Jefford would show glimpses of their ability at the other end when Carter looped a pass to Jefford who had found a pocket of space on the edge of the Antigua & Barbuda box only for Jefford to attempt an audacious lob of the keeper from the penalty spot, that only just failed to get up and down in time.
Buoyed by the home support of the Caymaniacs, the Reds settled fastest and held the edge in possession and attacking opportunities in the opening 15 minutes. However the hero of their last outing, Jefford, was definitely scouted by the Antiguans who allowed him absolutely no time to settle in possession, receiving special attention from both big centre backs. But that didn’t stop him from nearly breaking the deadlock following a breakdown in the basics with a tame back-pass by the A&B’s.
Antigua & Barbuda is certainly the most physically imposing squad within DCC’s Group C, and right on cue it began to impose itself on Cayman. Firstly with a powerhouse drive from 25 yards by Ranja Christian that had Tuda Murphy at his acrobatic best to parry it wide with his outstretched left hand for a corner.
Having scored twice in his first fixture, Jamie Thomas was a real cause for concern for the Cayman Islands, which marked the speedy striker into mostly dead end runs. But in minute 25 it was Thomas that was the catalyst for the best attack of the game when he managed to draw Murphy out of his goal, and fashion a cross that was met by a powerful header, that was eventually caught by Murphy who had somehow scrambled back into position.
As the first half progressed, it was Antigua & Barbuda that grew in confidence, testing Murphy on several occasions to see if his keeping style was simply unconventional or truly eccentric. It got an answer in minute 32 when Ranja Christian bulldozed his way through Murphy, who hadn’t collected cleanly from a square from the right, despite brave attempts to clear it off the line by the defenders, Christian would not be denied.
At this stage, Antigua & Barbuda looked the more focused and executed its tactics with more precision as the half began to wane, however, they were almost caught napping at the back when Cayman put together its best attacking move of the half in minute 43, following a sequence with no fewer than 6 passes, Leighton Elliot could only manage a tame shot that trickled into the arms of a well positioned Javid Joseph.
At the break it seemed that Cayman could only muster a diluted display, disappointing many in the stands.
But those thoughts were soon displaced when a reinvigorating team talk by Coach Carl Brown had the Caymanians off to an improved start in the second half.
Cayman began the second half with the wind to its back and got into the thick of things early on with a neat overlapping run by half time substitute Carson Fagan who tested Joseph at his near post.
The introduction of Fagan seemed a master stroke by Brown, as his pace and confidence began to seep into the play of his team mates as well. It was Fagan’s run that earned Cayman a free kick near the goal line on the edge of the box. The resulting set piece literally only needed a touch for it to enter the net, however it never received it and the score remained 1-0 to Antigua & Barbuda.
With Fagan flying down the flanks, the Caymanians were galvanised in attack, winning three consecutive corners and getting a shot off each time. He then earned another free-kick just on the edge of the area and Mario Carter positioned to take it. Just as he had placed the ball, the crowd began to chant ‘Let’s go Cayman, Let’s go!!’
As the ball floated high to the far post, it was O’neill Taylor rising head and shoulders above the defenders to plant a powerful low header that somehow squeezed under Javid Joseph and squirted into the net.
Jefford attempted a bicycle kick in the box for the winner.
Despite three consecutive corners in the closing moments of extra time, Cayman was unable to breech the backline just one last time before the final whistle blew. Final score 1-1 with neither Cayman nor Antigua & Barbuda any closer to claiming the top spot in Group C of The Digicel Championship as their own.
Cayman Islands: 1. Tuda Murphy, 3. Phillip Mark Berry, 4. O’Neil Ricardo Taylor, 5. Horace Nelson, 6. Ian Albert Lindo (8. Ron Christopher Douglas min 44) 7. Calvin Rene Escobar Jefford, 9. Jairo Sanchez (11. Carson David Fagan min 45). 13. Mario Rene Funez Carter, 16. Gary Dion Brandon, 17. Nikolai O. Alexander Hill (10. Ericksen Morfy min 68) , 18. Leighton Elroy Elliott
Subs: (2. Ivan Trevor Gibbs), (12. Jermaine Dennis Brown), (15. John Kelly Jr.), (20. Garth O’Neil Anderson)
Antigua & Barbuda: 2. Ranja Christian, 4. Karanja Mack, 5. Garfield Gonsales, 7. Randolph Burton (16.Okeem Challenger min 75) 8. Teran Williams, 9. Roy Gregory, (3. Dave Carr min 62), 10. Desmond Bleau, 11. Jamie Thomas, 12. Ken Pennyfeather (14.Troy Mellanson min 84), 17. George Dublin, 18. Javid Joseph.
Subs: (1. Keita Decastro), (6. Damian Farrel), (13. Akeem Thomas), (15. Rackley Thomas),
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