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Depth chart key to Mexico's success
Friday night could have created a minor pothole for Mexico along its path to the Hexagonal. The trip to Costa Rica presented the most difficult assignment in the semifinal stage. As the missteps by Panama and the United States showed earlier in the evening, away matches in CONCACAF often prove more complicated than anticipated at first glance.
Instead of succumbing to those concerns, Mexico submitted a professional performance in San José to secure a 2-0 victory. The straightforward triumph marked a third straight success in Group B play and offered a rather enticing incentive to extend the streak to four in the return match at Estadio Azteca on Tuesday night.
A second victory in four days over Costa Rica will clinch a berth in the Hexagonal with two matches to spare and permit José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre to experiment with his side ahead of the more difficult tasks ahead next year.
De la Torre already expressed ample faith in the depth and the quality of his squad by altering his team significantly ahead of the tricky excursion. Some of those changes occurred through injuries to key figures, but other switches originated from de la Torre's willingness to assess potential alternatives to strengthen the team in the future.
Perhaps the most dramatic shift came from the decision to plump for a 4-4-2 formation instead of the usually preferred 4-2-3-1 setup. Giovani dos Santos' absence from the squad through injury freed de la Torre to tinker with the status quo. De la Torre used the opportunity to insert Oribe Peralta alongside Javier Hernández up front and test his central midfield duo of Carlos Salcido and Jesús Zavala in possession by stripping away the extra man in that department.
Where they stand
The latter two players passed their modest examination without issue. Costa Rica's anachronistic 5-3-2 setup should have caused more problems with a three-versus-two battle in the center of the park, but Salcido and Zavala controlled the game. Converted fullback Salcido, in particular, influenced the match as a deep-lying distributor capable of moving the play from side to side. By controlling the rhythm of the match, Salcido and Zavala choked off most of the service to Joel Campbell and Álvaro Saborío after the early stages and shielded the back four – once again well marshaled by captain Francisco Rodríguez – from too much exposure.
The dominance in possession created ample opportunities for the fullbacks to push into the empty spaces in midfield and for the wingers to try to get around the edges of the five-man rearguard. While this segment of the match did not replicate the resounding success enjoyed in central midfield, the attacking moves on the right flank looked more threatening than in recent matches. Javier Aquino justified his inclusion in the place of injured Cruz Azul teammate Pablo Barrera (ACL tear) with a lively display. His forays limited Bryan Oviedo's influence on the match and showed that the Everton left back may have some defensive work to do before he can feature regularly for David Moyes' team.
One sequence late in the first half highlighted the amount of space ceded in certain areas and underscored the issues up front. Jorge Torres Nilo pushed into acres of space on the left and served an inviting ball toward the back post. Peralta did well to nod Torres Nilo's tempting cross back in front of goal, but Hernández snatched at his attempt to convert from six yards. The miss highlighted Hernández's recent dearth of sharpness in front of goal and suggested Peralta's influence could help him come out of it.
Unfortunately for both Hernandez and Peralta, the chance may have marked the high points of their evenings. Neither player threatened consistently with creating opportunities in the final third falling below maintaining possession in the pecking order away from home. There were times when the two players displayed enough of an understanding to hint at future success if de la Torre persists with the pairing, but the first outing also showed plenty of work ahead for this nascent partnership.
De la Torre will hope the return leg includes an attack that relies less on set pieces – Andrés Guardado supplied the goals by Salcido and Zavala from corner kicks – and more on incisive play in the final third. Marco Fabián could come into the team in place of either Hernández or Peralta to usher in a return to the usual 4-2-3-1 formation, but the importance of Hernández's form to the failure or success of the team as a whole may just encourage another shot for the setup used in Costa Rica.
A choice between one or two up front and the uncertain availability of Severo Meza (withdrawn with an apparent left knee injury after an Oviedo tackle late in the first half) will not amend the requirements for this particular affair. Mexico must once again assume control of the match in midfield and prevent Costa Rica from countering quickly after obtaining possession. By limiting the chances on the break and starving Campbell and Saborío of service, the home side will enjoy ample leeway to pick apart a suspect defense and score the goal or two required to secure a spot in the Hexagonal.
The recent defeat to the United States at Estadio Azteca may increase the expectations for this particular tie. Even if the Mexicans struggle to meet those amplified demands as they adjust to their revamped setup and grapple with the continued absence of the influential dos Santos, they will still book a spot in the final six with another professional display in front of their home fans. Aesthetics remain important to the overall cause, but the proper result and the guaranteed progress it would entail weigh far more heavily in the final accounting given the stakes at hand.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.
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