Tue, Jun

Saintfiet needs a miracle.

One month since being named national head coach, Tom Saintfiet, is staring the axe. Three defeats in his first four games including Sunday’s 4-3 extra time loss to Haiti that saw T&T crash out of Gold Cup qualifying while playing at home show the depths to which this country’s football has sunk.

Saintfiet, the 43-year-old Belgian, is supposed to revive a floundering World Cup campaign but any optimism has since dissipated with T&T defeats to 150th-ranked Suriname 2-1 and a first-ever defeat to Nicaragua in December. 

With much tougher opposition looming in the World Cup qualifiers vs Panama (March 24) and Mexico (March 28), T&T’s performances under their new coach thus far do not augur well for the immediate future. 

Playing on home soil for the Gold Cup qualifiers against Suriname and Haiti, it did not seem as if the hosts had any advantage whatsoever in front their home crowd. Timid in their opening match against Suriname, a neutral observer could be forgiven for thinking the match was being held in Suriname. 

After that defeat, Saintfiet told the media: “We gave ball possession on purpose to be stronger on the counter- attack.” Why T&T would not attack an inexperienced Suriname team whose best player plays in the Pro League? Only Saintfiet could answer that question. 

His tactics did not work. But even in that fixture, contrary to the T&T coach’s assertion that the hosts had the better of the exchanges and a lot of “almost goals”, it was T&T goalkeeper Adrian Foncette who had to dive full stretch to push a shot past the post just before the half. And in the second period on a counter-attack, Suriname hit the post with the T&T defence all at sea. 

On Sunday, after a thrilling 4-3 defeat to Haiti, Saintfiet unsurprisingly appealed for more time. His team was given 48 more hours to prepare for Sunday’s match than their opponent (T&T played Suriname on Wednesday while Haiti played Suriname on Friday) but surprisingly it was the visitors who seemed the fresher team. 

After a month in charge, it is difficult to see what Saintfiet’s men are trying to do in the middle and attacking third while defensively it has been a calamity with eight goals conceded from their four games so far. The zonal marking by T&T against Haiti was a complete disaster with four Haitians getting their heads on the ball repeatedly while outnumbered by nine T&T players in the box on set-plays. Given three goals were conceded by headers off set-plays, T&T clearly needed more work on the training ground before trying to incorporate zonal marking into their play book. 

Another cause for concern has been Saintfiet’s substitutions which have failed to provide the impetus off the bench in the Gold Cup qualifiers. 

The national coach admitted to this after the Suriname game. 

“Later in the match I think we had too little power, energy in the replacements who came in... If you bring a fresh player in you expect that they fight and battle and fly over the pitch because they are less tired than the (others), I think that was our weakness today,” he said. 

Again, vs Haiti, Saintfiet brought on Alvin Jones (injury to Carlos Edwards), Cornell Glen, Hughtun Hector and Trevin Caesar but the flow of the match never changed. He again resorted to centre-back Radanfah Abu Bakr being deployed in the latter stages of the match as a forward, looking to win aerial duels in the box. Earlier in the match, after Haiti withstood the opening barrage from the hosts, T&T began hoofing long passes to the energetic but five footsix inches Shahdon Winchester without success. Having dropped captain Kenwyne Jones to shift to a more fluid style of play it was bemusing to see T&T resort to those tactics. 

Haitian midfielder Herold Charles was also made to look like Ronaldinho in his heyday, orchestrating the Haitian attacks continuously with little pressure on him. The dreadlocked #10 certainly oozes skill but in a door- die game at home, T&T failed to address the obvious threat the midfielder possesses, dictating play, and leaving the TT players tired while chasing shadows all over the field. 

On the positive side, 25-year-old forward Shahdon Winchester got his chance on his birthday and showed he is hungry to make a name for himself with a hat-trick in Sunday’s 4-3 defeat. Jabloteh’s Tyrone Charles also had flashes of brilliance with his dead ball skills providing a threat for the national team. 

Can Saintfiet turn things around in time for the World Cup qualifiers? Maybe. But on the evidence of his four games in charge so far, the future does not look bright. 

David John Williams, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA), has laid out an ultimatum that T&T need to get four points in their next two World Cup qualifiers for Saintfiet to keep his job. On the evidence so far, the man nicknamed “The Saint” and the “The Messiah” after a two-year stint in Namibia will need a miracle for that to happen.