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Mexico, Costa Rica face off in WCQ
The prospect of securing a berth in the Hexagonal with two matches to spare should provide Mexico with plenty of motivation ahead of a home-and-home series with Costa Rica.
Other factors – atoning for that first defeat to the United States on home soil last month, perhaps – will influence matters as well, but the safety of a certain spot in the final six after Friday's visit to Estadio Nacional in San José and Tuesday's return leg at Estadio Azteca represents the primary goal for this pair of World Cup qualifiers.
Professional victories over Guyana (3-1 in Mexico City on June 8) and El Salvador (2-1 in San Salvador on June 12) to open the Group B slate place Mexico in a dominant position heading into this pair of games. Two wins in two attempts will assure the expected entry into the Hexagonal and grant some latitude to experiment in the final two matches in Guyana and against El Salvador in October.
Mexico coach Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre offered few surprises in his 23-man squad to pursue that particular objective. The straightforward announcement did not defuse several selection issues ahead of de la Torre for these two qualifiers.
The recall of veteran midfielder Gerardo Torrado presents a rather intriguing conundrum in the two deep-lying roles. Torrado's return to the setup after a year out of the reckoning – and the potential inclusion of Carlos Salcido in a similar position – suggests de la Torre harbors some concerns about the base of his midfield in the preferred 4-2-3-1 setup. Both players could form a solid foundation if selected together ahead of Jesús Zavala, but there will be concerns about their mobility given their declining physical attributes.
No such issues will arise on the right side of midfield, even with the recent injury to Pablo Barrera. The Cruz Azul winger is expected to miss six months after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the waning stages of Saturday's 1-1 draw with Pachuca. Barrera may have found himself out of the team anyways due to his inconsistent form since returning to Liga MX this summer, but his absence ends the debate on the merits and paves the way for either club teammate Javier Aquino or Tigres UANL's Elías Hernández to claim the shirt.
Most of the attention up front centers on the quandary presented by Javier Hernández's lack of match practice at Manchester United. Chicharito looked far short of his best form in the friendly against the US last month and squandered opportunities he usually tucks away without a second thought. His dearth of sharpness may force de la Torre to ponder potential alternatives, though it does appear somewhat unlikely that he would follow Sir Alex Ferguson's lead and drop Hernández from the starting XI.
The injury to recent Mallorca signing Giovani dos Santos provides de la Torre with more flexibility. He could either stick with his usual approach and insert a schemer such as C.D. Guadalajara starlet Marco Fabián in a straight swap or switch to a strike partnership to give Hernández a bit more support in his quest to breach the score sheet. Olympic hero Oribe Peralta (one of eight gold medalists included in the squad) or Aldo de Nigris could benefit from the addition of a second striker to the starting XI.
While the potential positives and negatives in each position will impact the side chosen by de la Torre, they will not unduly influence the final outcome of a pair of matches Mexico will expect to win regardless of the personnel employed.
Many of the key Costa Rican figures from the World Cup sides of 2006 and 2010 have departed from the scene. In their place resides a weaker squad with a mix of established stars—such as Fulham winger Bryan Ruiz and Real Salt Lake striker Álvaro Saborío—combining with promising younger talents, like Arsenal prospect and Real Betis loanee Joel Campbell and recent Everton signing Bryan Oviedo, to pursue a third straight World Cup berth.
The integration of old and new yields a fairly potent attacking unit that scored six times in the first two qualifiers. Ruiz serves as the captain and spurs the team onwards from behind the front two, but his status for this pair of games remains uncertain as he tries to overcome the left hamstring injury that kept him out of Fulham's 3-0 defeat to West Ham United on Saturday. Saborío leads the line ably and supplies the most reliable goal threat, while Campbell offers a bit of pace to stretch the field vertically.
Costa Rica manager Jose Luis Pinto may rely on his attacking players to carry a decent midfield group and a defensive unit that will struggle to cope with the dynamic Mexican side. The days of reliable regulars such as Luis Marín and Mauricio Wright passed years ago, but the country failed to produce comparable defenders to fill the void and protect goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Former Chivas USA and Los Angeles center back Michael Umaña lends the necessary bit of experience in a fairly youthful back four. The strength of this unit stems from Oviedo's overlapping forays on the left rather than its defensive prowess.
Perhaps those defenders could take a lesson from the strength of the Estadio Nacional. The recently constructed venue emerged unscathed from a series of aftershocks in San Jose after a severe earthquake rocked the country on Wednesday morning, according to La Opinion. The match will proceed as scheduled on Friday night, according to comments attributed to officials from both federations.
By the time Saturday morning arrives in Central America, Mexico could move within one victory of a spot in the Hexagonal. Obtaining the desired result will require a disciplined defensive performance in a difficult environment and a touch of audacity to pursue the game at times on the break. It is a brief well within Mexico's capabilities considering its success against the Costa Ricans in the past and the overall strength of its squad.
More of the same over the next week would ensure Mexico books its place in the Hexagonal in comprehensive fashion with a pair of victories and sets the stage for the more taxing ordeal ahead next year. It is by no means a mandatory mission to complete with two qualifiers still to play in October, but it is one worth undertaking as de la Torre continues to shape his squad with an eye toward Brazil in 2014.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.