FOX Soccer Exclusive
Mexico book 2014 World Cup ticket
The final whistle in Wellington brought Mexico its long awaited World Cup berth without the usual adulation affixed to it. There are no curtain calls for sputtering through the Hexagonal and stumbling into a two-legged World Cup playoff against New Zealand courtesy of a late American intervention in Panama. The humbling task constituted a punishment for previous failures with one possible outcome given the gulf in class between the two sides.
It is a brief Mexico accepted professionally and ruthlessly in the cathartic 5-1 first leg triumph to render the second leg a perfunctory journey to collect its prize. Oribe Peralta removed all lingering doubt with a first-half hat trick to spark the visitors to a 4-2 win on the day and a comprehensive 9-3 victory on aggregate. The bleary-eyed supporters in Mexico City trudged off to bed with a World Cup place in hand and many questions still to answer ahead of next summer's showcase.
Most of the solutions will come from careful study from potential peers, not overwhelmed opposition like the All Whites. The standards set in Bucharest, Saint-Denis, Solna, Zagreb and Yaoundé on Tuesday matter far more than this stroll through Westpac Stadium. And the indications from those matches suggest far sterner tests await Mexico in Brazil next summer.
This group won't face those hurdles in its current form. Interim boss -- or imminently permanent, depending on the source -- Miguel Herrera cobbled together a domestic-based squad to muddle through this slog and secure a spot in the draw next month. The flaws within this collection of players and the strengths of the omitted stars ensure widespread changes to bolster the side ahead of the rigorous gauntlet ahead.
Herrera can use this pair of matches against the All Whites to identify potential cogs in the transformed side, though. The directness of this outfit in its 5-3-2 setup offers encouraging signs for the counterattacking deportment required to succeed at a higher level. Peralta -- the most consistently productive player for El Tri this year by quite some distance -- pressed his case for a place up front and showed his ability to serve as the touchstone for a revamped outfit. Carlos Peña -- scorer of the fourth goal three minutes from time -- to ensure New Zealand did not somehow snatch a result -- stated his claims for a regular berth in central midfield with his industry and his link play with Peralta. Other players -- left wingback Miguel Layún, in particular -- bolstered their own bids for one of those precious spots on the plane.
Those welcome developments do not mask the inherent weaknesses within this group. New Zealand scored in the first leg and won a penalty in the second leg by smashing through the middle of the three-man central defense. The home side's late push -- including a penalty conversion by Chris James and a staggeringly unmarked finish by Rory Fallon at the back stick -- highlighted the frailty behind this aging line. The advanced positioning of the wingbacks could harm the side against stronger opposition, though Herrera will likely temper the bombarding runs accordingly to shore up his shape. Luis Montes' consistent march toward the sideline around the hour mark and Sinha's emergence from the wilderness underscored the need for a more influential creative presence in the attacking third.
Some of the expected quality will arrive from Europe as Herrera integrates foreign-based stars into his side. The likes of Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernández, Héctor Moreno and Carlos Vela offer qualities simply not at Herrera's disposal at the moment. Herrera must assuage any lingering doubts harbored by the first three men after their omissions from this playoff and convince the reluctant Vela to return to the fold. He must also weigh the merits of including Javier Aquino (a winger without a natural home in this system), Andrés Guardado (an intriguing option at left wingback), Héctor Herrera (another possibility in central midfield), Guillermo Ochoa (a potential starter, but a reluctant substitute, between the sticks) and Diego Reyes (a promising defensive option with the proper development).
It is no easy task to blend those players with the emerging core already in place, but Herrera must tend to his duties carefully to ensure he fields a formidable side against better opposition. New Zealand's late response in the second leg supplied a timely reminder of the need to shore up the lingering issues and sustain the necessary commitment to improve over the next few months.
Mexico cannot afford to squander the opening presented by this successful salvage operation. The desired spot in the select group of 32 is now in hand after the victory in Wellington, but the real challenge lays ahead. It is up to this group of players -- and the stars poised to join it along the way -- to atone for its earlier missteps and transfer its modest revival act on the big stage next summer.