A scoreless result in Panama last week extended Mexico’s record to four clean sheets in their opening five matches in the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying. But that is largely where the good news ends for El Tri and their manager Jose Manuel de la Torre.
While defensively they have been solid, at the other end of the field Mexico have scored just three goals and continue to lack cohesion and creativity going forward. Their record of four draws and one victory may have been enough for a share of top spot, yet they have played a game more than those sides around them. Now welcoming a Costa Rican outfit that sits above them on goal difference, De la Torre will be fully aware of the need for his side to get a positive result. It remains hard to envisage a talented Mexican pool of players being in serious jeopardy of failing to make it to Brazil next year, but whether their current manager makes the trip with them is a very different story.
Arguably, in isolation, a draw away at a Panama side still undefeated in the Hexagonal is a perfectly creditable result. Yet, given what has gone before it -- notably frustrating goalless draws at home to Jamaica and the United States -- Mexico fans and media were understandably concerned by the side’s continued inability to threaten in the final third. A similar performance in the famed Azteca may be too much to bear. While the steeped stadium can be a hostile place for visiting teams, and not just because of the altitude, it can also be an unpleasant setting for an under-performing Mexico side and its manager.
Having won Olympic gold in London last year to backup other recent honors for their underage sides, this was supposed to be a golden era for Mexican soccer. There was genuine expectation that El Tri would at least break through the barrier into the final eight of the World Cup next year after five consecutive Round-of-16 exits. But, while those expectations may yet be fulfilled, they appear some way off realism right now.
The calls for Carlos Vela to return to the national set-up continue to grow as Mexico’s struggles have gone hand-in-hand with the best season of his career -- scoring 14 goals and contributing nine assists for Real Sociedad in La Liga. Certainly his presence would be a big plus, but his absence does not explain Mexico’s struggles.
De la Torre has a talented group of players at his disposal, yet his pragmatism and failure to impose a coherent identity on the side have meant them not fulfilling their potential as yet. There continues to be debate about whether the side is better served with Javier Hernandez as a lone front man and Giovani dos Santos playing in behind or by a two-man frontline. Striker Aldo de Nigris played and scored the only goal against Jamaica last week, but contributed little else to the performance and was back on the bench in Panama as Dos Santos returned. Against Costa Rica, De la Torre could make a bold statement by selecting 22-year-old forward Raul Jiminez, who has been in good form with Club America.
History suggests De la Torre won’t make such a move and the same may prove true of the possibility of him adding more creativity to the midfield. Hector Herrera has yet to make his mark on the senior side having been a part of the Olympic squad but warrants another chance in place of either of the more defensively minded duo of Gerardo Torrado and Jesus Zavala.
However, with Costa Rica possessing the talented figure of Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz, linking up with Arsenal's Joel Campbell and potentially Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio, De la Torre may again opt to play it safe. That outlook may mean yet another uninspiring performance for El Tri, but they should have just enough to pick up all three points.
Mexico 1-0 Costa Rica
Match details: The Concacaf World Cup qualifier will kick-off at 8 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPN.