FOX Soccer Exclusive
Mexico struggling to silence questions
Mexico expected its march toward Brazil to reflect its increasing stature on the world stage and reinforce its credentials as a potential candidate for a deep run in next summer's South American showcase.
José Manuel de la Torre's side instead enters its sixth match of the Hexagonal – a tricky home tie against Costa Rica on Tuesday night – still in search of the cadence and the quality required to transform its sputtering campaign into more of a formality.
The scoreless draw in Panama City provided a necessary point along the road to qualification without stating a particular convincing case for impending revival. A second victory in succession may have belatedly brought Mexico to life in this final stage and silenced the chorus of doubters momentarily. A fourth draw in five attempts merely ensured the persistent questions about the direction of the team will linger ahead of this return to Mexico City and the subsequent departure for the Confederations Cup.
De la Torre and his players can take some solace in the fact that previous editions of El Tri have muddled through the Hexagonal in similar fashion. The golden hue of the medals procured by the Olympic side in London last summer may have amplified the already significant demands placed upon this squad, but they did not erase a well-established tradition of making hard work of this six-team gauntlet en route to the World Cup.
Mexico has qualified for each of the four World Cups in the Hexagonal era, but it has not won the final group stage of qualifying outright since the inaugural edition in 1998. The likes of Alberto García Aspe, Carlos Hermosillo and Luis Hernández played vital roles in that unblemished procession to the top of the group with four wins and six draws.
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Subsequent campaigns inevitably involved frustration and surprise before ultimate success. A final-day victory over Honduras at Estadio Azteca clinched a berth in 2002. No such drama followed in 2006, though El Tri finished tied atop the group with the Americans after Trinidad and Tobago won its final game to secure a playoff place (and an eventual spot in the World Cup). The last outing involved its fair share of drama under Sven-Göran Eriksson in the semifinal stage before Javier Aguirre steered his charges into second spot in the Hex.
The overarching theme with all of those treks through this perilous region – it isn't easy to qualify in CONCACAF, even though it may look straightforward is on paper – offers little solace at this point, though. It is not supposed to be this hard for Mexico to navigate its way through the mire. And it is about time for de la Torre and his players to submit a display befitting of the quality within the ranks.
This date with Costa Rica offers an opportunity to quash the sudden vulnerability at Estadio Azteca after scoreless draws with Jamaica and the United States at that formidable venue and slide this campaign well and truly back on track.
Costa Rica enters this affair atop the Hexagonal on goal difference after a narrow 1-0 victory over Honduras in San Jose on Friday night, though veteran boss Jorge Luis Pinto would gladly take a point in Mexico City. Pinto leans heavily on Joel Campbell, Bryan Ruiz and Álvaro Saborío (hindered by injuries for much of the MLS season to date and relegated to the substitutes' bench on Friday) to provide the goals. His options in midfield include familiar operators like Cristian Bolaños and Celso Borges, but his defense – a foreign-based unit including three Scandinavian-based players and New York left back Roy Miller – lacks the experience desired to combat the formidable task ahead.
Mexico must heap pressure on the visitors from the opening whistle to cast aside any qualms about the challenge ahead and set the tempo and the tone for this encounter. De la Torre faces the regular questions about his shape (4-4-2 versus 4-2-3-1 yet again with the latter winning out away from home with Giovani dos Santos restored) and his team selection (Javier Aquino versus Pablo Barrera on the right looms as the primary talking point, though dos Santos' spot comes into question if the formation reverts to 4-4-2) as he attempts to prod his talented players into carving apart the opposition in the final third and meeting their potential.
Despite the indifferent first half to this Hexagonal slate, Mexico possesses all of the necessary tools to produce the performances necessary to meet expectations and render the current complaints irrelevant. It is now – as it has been in the past at this stage, despite the hopes to the contrary – just a matter of devising some way to impress along the windy road to the World Cup.