Mexico Stumbles but Stays Alive

A late rally by the U.S. means that Mexico now move on to face New Zealand in a play-off
by Brendan Doherty   |   Wednesday, October 16, 2013

 MEX Matters - column on Liga MX, El Tri & Mexican futbol.

Víctor Manuel Vucetich was brought in with 2 matches left in World Cup Qualification. In order to ensure a 4th place finish (and the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand), Mexico needed positive results in both matches; anything less and El Tri would need to pray for scorelines in other games to help them out.

Despite the late game heroics from Olympic gold medalist Raúl Jiménez at home against Panama, Mexico ended up relying on those hopes and prayers on Tuesday night. Mexico could not complete the comeback in San José but two stoppage time goals from bitter rivals the United States in their game against Panama eliminated the Panamanians and sent Mexico through to the play-off.

The night was a real roller-coaster of emotion for Mexico fans. The opening goal that would have eased concerns for El Tri was ruled out for an offside call right before Fulham's Bryan Ruiz put Costa Rica ahead. Crisis was temporarily averted when Oribe Peralta continued his hot form with an equalizer minutes later.

Through the halftime interval fans (myself included) knew that a draw would be enough to see them through but one goal could change everything. That goal came from the head of Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborío in the 64th minute. For forty minutes quiet confidence turned to gut-wrenching fear that the dream of Brazil 2014 could come to an end.

Had Panama's game finished at 90 minutes with a 2-1 score in favor of the hosts, that team would have placed fourth by virtue of total goals scored, the second tie-breaker in CONCACAF qualifying. Mexico has the United States to thank for keeping World Cup hopes alive and that fact caught fire on social media as #GraciasUSA and #YoureWelcomeMexico were both trending in Mexico well into the night.

Mexico's defensive performance

The only change in starting lineups from Friday to Tuesday was Christian “Chaco” Giménez replacing Giovani dos Santos. Interestingly, the backline remained the same despite several mistakes last week from both Hugo Ayala and Jorge Torres Nilo. The Mexican team that started in a 4-1-3-2 in San José, Costa Rica, was Guillermo Ochoa; Miguel Layún, Rafael Márquez, Ayala, Torres Nilo; Jesús Zavala, Javier Aquino, Carlos Peña, Giménez, Javier Hernández and Oribe Peralta.

“Memo” Ochoa did not appear to be enjoying himself on the sleek and sometimes muddy surface in Estadio Nacional. Ochoa was not as confident and comfortable as he could have been, but he was not particularly at fault for either of the goals Costa Rica scored. As we will see with the rest of the team, Memo will need to be better moving forward.

None of Mexico's defenders looked good on the night. Right back Miguel Layún and captain central defender Rafael Márquez each had decent contributions playing balls forward but important questions need to be asked of this back four. Hugo Ayala and Jorge Torres Nilo looked very much out of place in these high-pressure matches for Mexico. Ayala will be the odd man out once Hector Moreno is fit again but what will Vucetich do at left back?

The left back position has been one of the more solid for Mexico in recent years. Torres Nilo and veteran Carlos Salcido did seem like reliable options heading into the the 2014 World Cup. Now that participation in that tournament is still in some doubt, neither Tigres player has inspired confidence. Though right back has been somewhat of a carousel for Mexico lately with as many as 6 players lining up in that position during this Qualification cycle (Layún, Hiram Mier, Severo Meza, Gerardo “Jerry” Flores, Paul Aguilar and Israel Jiménez), Layún's performances against Panama and Costa Rica will have won the America wingback new fans.

Nailing down a midfield plan

Under José “Chepo” de la Torre, Jesús Zavala often partnered Gerardo Torrado in a very defensive-minded central midfield. The 2 players are very similar in their tenacity for a tackle and willingly to win the ball. However, when paired together neither player can play at his best and Zavala's workrate especially on Tuesday night showed he can do the job for Mexico in an anchor role. Because Zavala can excel as the hard-nosed defensive midfielder, Carlos “Gullit” Peña has the liberty to push the agenda forward.

One of many repeating problems for Mexico in 2013 has been a confused or non-existent midfield. El Tri lacked a player to carry the ball forward through the middle and this caused wide players to cut in to try their hands at play-making. While positional fluidity can be a great thing (look at Giovani dos Santos's whole career), Vuce likes his wide players to play wide and a central player to act as a link between defense and attack. This explains perhaps why Giovani was overlooked in the starting lineup for Chaco Giménez and is a testament to the impact Peña has in this squad.

With Ángel Reyna out hurt and Andrés Guardado dropped due to poor form, Mexico seems to be lacking options out wide. Neither Javier Aquino or Chaco Giménez did enough to earn rave reviews on Tuesday night. Chaco doesn't have the legs at this point in his career to be an out-and-out winger and on the contrary Aquino needs to refine his play to add more quality to his workrate. Giovani did feature in the second half but didn't have much of an impact on proceedings. Mexican-American attacking midfielder Isaác Brizeula subbed into the game shortly after Gio but didn't establish himself in the match and didn't do anything worth writing home about.

Forwards

Oribe Peralta did well to score despite having only a few sniffs at goal in Estadio Nacional. The Santos Laguna forward has benefited from the tactical assignment Vucetich has given his strike partner. Gone are the days of “San Chicharo” when Mexico simply showed up the games with a 5-man midfield and the Manchester United forward. Vucetich in a short time has turned Mexico into a team that plays balls into the feet of 1 forward while the other peels around behind the defense.

Chicharito missed a penalty on Friday and did not fashion many any notable chances on goal for himself, though he did provide a wonderful assist for Peralta's strike and was constantly moving. The Little Pea was similarly involved but his build-up play with back to goal was not as incisive in Costa Rica and he missed at least three genuine scoring opportunities.

After a frustrating 60 minutes, Vucetich replace Chicharito with Raúl Jiménez, who was unable to follow-up his awe-inspiring strike from Friday. The Club America forward did not take advantage of his 6'3” frame during his extended cameo but he has shown the ability to play as the type of forward Vucetich seems to prefer.

Conclusions

Chicharito's lack of production encapsulates the general sentiment about this Mexican team, even after Vucetich has taken over; the team is marginally better but needs to improve greatly. Returning captain Rafael Márquez and Vucetich said as much in the postgame interviews. Everyone knows this team has to be more organized in defense and more confident in attack during the play-off series with New Zealand.

The national team coaching staff doesn’t have time to lament the misfortunes of a 1st half goal called back for a phantom offside decision or any number of poor decisions on the night. Mexico host New Zealand, the champion of the Oceania region, on either Nov. 13 or 14 before flying to New Zealand on Nov. 20. While the islanders are not exactly a powerhouse in global football, these home-and-home matches could play out just as frustratingly as the rest of Mexico's matches against presumed inferior competition this calendar year.

Mexico did not play well enough against a solid Costa Rica side. Los Ticos have quality players and Mexico was up against a tough challenge on Tuesday night in Estadio Nacional in San José. The bitter feeling of being saved in qualification by the United States will only get worse if Mexico underestimate New Zealand next month. All signs point to the fact that Mexico has improved (however slightly) under the guidance of new head coach Víctor Manuel Vucetich, who has at least one exhibition match to further prepare his team for the next phase of qualification.

NEXT UP: TBD – WCQ: Mexico vs. New Zealand, TBD, Mexico. TBD.

Brendan DOHERTY

Nationality:
USA
College:
Hamilton College
Club Domestic:
Rochester Rhinos, RBNY
Club Foreign:
Tottenham, Club América
Household Jeopardy champion from a small town in Upstate New York. Simultaneously brought to Tottenham Hotspur by a youth coach & given a copy of FIFA 2004. Enthusiastically pragmatic & a student of the game. Covering the Mexican National Team & Liga MX.
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