Despite the miraculous drama that unfolded at the Estadio Azteca last Friday, Mexico’s tight-rope walking mission to ensure World Cup qualification has only just begun. Raul Jimenez’s stunning late winner against Panama deserves a place in Mexican folklore, but unless defeat is avoided in Costa Rica on Tuesday, it could well be a mere bright footnote to a historic failure.
Following its 2-1 win, Mexico now sits three points above Panama heading into the final round of Concacaf qualifiers. A draw or win and Mexico will be guaranteed a two-legged playoff against New Zealand. A defeat and El Tri will be sweating on the result in Panama City, where a victory for Panama over the United States would then see Mexico condemned to missing out on soccer’s flagship spectacle for the first time since 1990.
There remains an outside chance of leapfrogging Honduras into the final automatic spot, if it falls to defeat in Jamaica and Mexico win with a sufficient turnaround in goal difference. But there can be little doubt that Mexico would happily jump aboard the long flight to Auckland right now.
Doing so will be no walk in the park, given that Costa Rica have won all four of its home matches in the Heaxgonal, conceding just one goal in the process. Historically, there is plenty of encouragement for Mexico, having gone without defeat in Costa Rica in 21 years. Yet, this is no ordinary qualifying campaign for El Tri, which has wasted every opportunity to get their ship back on course before the Panama fairytale.
But there is a new man in charge now and there were already signs on Friday that Victor Manuel Vucetich has had a positive impact on a side that was floundering in such despairing fashion under Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre. Most striking was the greater positivity displayed. Chepo’s sides, which later became so psychologically inhibited, has long had shackles placed on them by the manager’s frustratingly conservative tactics.
Crucial against Panama was the role of Carlos Pena. The Leon midfielder added a vital dynamism and extra attacking threat of the kind that has so long been missing with Chepo opting for two holding midfielders. Pena was key in creating the opening goal for Oribe Peralta and drove Mexico on throughout. The tone of the performance was also helped by both full-backs -- Miguel Layun and Jorge Torres Nilo -- repeatedly getting forward to support two wide midfielders who were always looking to cut inside.
Another decision that Vucetich got right was the controversial one to recall veteran Rafael Marquez. This is a time for big personalities and leaders and the former Barcelona and New York Red Bulls man provided a commanding influence against Panama. He also showed that, at age 34, he could still play a bit, too. Marquez’s ability to pass long and accurately out of the back provided extra urgency at times to his side’s play.
Of course, not everything was so positive for Mexico. There remained a lack of cohesion in attacking areas, with Giovani dos Santos again failing to impress. Although it was linkup between Peralta and Javier Hernandez that led to the opening goal, that was one of the few times that the duo combined. It remains to be seen whether they can flourish together, or if the side would be better served with just a lone front man or indeed a striker of more contrasting qualities lining up alongside Peralta or Hernandez. Jimenez has certainly put himself in the frame to be that man. Having missed a penalty and been in tears at the end of the match, Hernandez needs to be picked up ahead of Tuesday’s match if he is to keep his place.
While Costa Rica’s place in Brazil has already been assured, their players, if not determined to inflict misery on Mexico, have certainly made it clear that they would not be shedding any tears were El Tri to be sitting at home next summer. Could the country that was responsible for the first Aztecazo on Mexico in 2001, inflict an even more painful defeat on its Central American rivals?