It has already been a long and eventful summer for Mexico, but for coach Miguel Herrera the real business is just about to begin. Mexico take on Cuba on Thursday to get their 2015 Gold Cup challenge underway, and Herrera will be desperate for a positive start after what has been the most challenging few weeks of his tenure to date.
It is than three weeks since Mexico crashed out of the Copa America in Chile. And while it was a second-string squad that made the trip south, Herrera’s repeated insistence that the players at his disposal were good enough to make the final, mean a group-stage exit without a single win dented his reputation. On top of the on-field disappointment, Herrera’s once strong popularity was tainted by his sending of politically-themed tweets that got him in hot water with the Mexican Federation. The charismatic face-of-a-thousand memes who restored positivity to the side for last year’s World Cup is now under pressure.
While the Copa America may have been something of a bonus event, the Gold Cup is critical for Mexico. Not only is the pride of regaining Concacaf superiority at stake, but so is the chance to keep alive chances of going to the next Confederations Cup -- increasingly seen as an important preparation event ahead of the following year’s World Cup. Mexico will need to lift the trophy and then win a playoff with 2013 Gold Cup winners the United States in order to get to Russia in 2017.
Unfortunately for Herrera, his preparations for the Gold Cup have already been dealt a considerable blow. The first-choice lineup was kept in reserve for the challenge of regaining the trophy last won by El Tri in 2011, but is already down two of its key performers. In the team’s first warm-up friendly against Costa Rica came a foot injury for standout center-back Héctor Moreno before against Honduras last Wednesday Javier “Chicharito” Hernández broke his collarbone. Both will miss the entirety of the Gold Cup.
There has also, in part impacted by the injury to Moreno, been a tactical shift from Herrera. Having switched away from the 5-3-2 system he has used throughout his reign, and previously at club level, which launched a second-half recovery and draw 2-2 with Costa Rica. Mexico then started in a 4-4-2 shape in a goalless draw with Honduras.
It means against Cuba Francisco “Maza” Rodríguez and Diego Reyes are likely to partner up in the center of defense, with Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar having to rein in their attacking instincts at full-back. In midfield there is more uncertainty. Andrés Guardado should shift to the left, while José Juan Vázquez is likely to be the defensive midfielder. But whether it’s Hector Herrera alongside him or if the Porto man moves out to the right and Jonathan dos Santos comes into the middle appears in doubt. Up front the other Dos Santos, Giovani, could have to make do with a place on the bench, with Herrera seemingly preferring the contrasting styles of Carlos Vela and Oribe Peralta up front.
Yet for all the doubts and issues surrounding Mexico, running through the lineup reinforces that, in terms of talent, El Tri arguably stands above the competition at this Gold Cup. But that will count for nothing if Herrera cannot get his squad to deliver, starting against Cuba.
It is a match that Mexico are expected to win with little trouble, and they are similarly favored to ease through a group that also contains Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago. Certainly expectations are low for Cuba entering the Gold Cup. Only last month the team suffered a desperate blow when being eliminated from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup at their first hurdle courtesy of a defeat on away goals to a Curaçao team ranked 148 in the world. While they did reach the quarterfinals of the Gold Cup two years ago, Cuba familiarly comes into the tournament with a squad based entirely of domestic-based players.
Prediction: Mexico could take some time to hit their stride at this Gold Cup, if, indeed, they do reach their potential, but they will surely have too much for Cuba. A repeat of the 5-0 victory Mexico recorded the last time the sides met in the 2011 Gold Cup could be on the cards, although it may be just a little closer this time around.
Predicted score: Mexico over Cuba, 4-