Mexico begin their quest for 2018 World Cup qualification and get the reign of new coach Juan Carlos Osorio underway when welcoming El Salvador to the Estadio Azteca on Friday. It is a long road to Russia, with this just the penultimate round of qualifying, in which Mexico will compete for a top-two berth in a group also including Honduras and Canada in order to claim a spot in the six-team Hexagonal. But making a strong start, particularly at the Azteca, will be keenly desired, particularly after the travails in making it to the last World Cup.
Mexico required the late intervention of the United States against Panama just to make it into a playoff last time around. Much of the problems in qualifying were down to the team’s struggles to break down opponents at a stadium that was for so long considered a fortress. In five qualifying matches in the Hexagonal at the Azteca in 2013, Mexico won just one and was remarkably held to three goalless draws. El Salvador, which has conceded more than a single goal in only one of its last eight matches, will present a familiar test for El Tri at the 95,000-capacity arena in Mexico City.
With a difficult trip to Honduras upcoming next Tuesday, anything less than a convincing win will already put pressure on Osorio. The Colombian, who left his post at Brazilian club Sao Paulo to take over from interim coach Ricardo Ferretti, will need no reminding that Mexico went through four coaches in order to make it through qualifying for Brazil. But captain Andres Guardado has asked for the fans to forget those previous struggles.
“I would ask people to erase it from their mind, this is a new qualifying and we are starting from scratch,” Guardado said at a news conference on Thursday. “Maybe the fans do not realize how important they are to us. We will show that the team has a huge hunger because we do not want a repeat of what happened in the last qualifying.”
It is unclear whether Guardado, who has been in fine form with PSV Eindhoven, will start the match on Friday, with Osorio suggesting he will field different lineups for the two upcoming matches. That is likely to mean that the stronger of the two selections is reserved for the trip to San Pedro Sula, and could provide an opportunity for the squad’s uncapped members, Raúl López, and Pumas duo Luis Fuentes and Alejandro Castro, to make their debuts against El Salvador.
Handing encouragement to Mexico is the fact that it will be taking on opponents currently in turmoil. Still reeling from a match-fixing scandal that saw 14 national team players handed life bans in 2013, the buildup to the match with Mexico has seen several squad members go on strike and refuse call-ups as they demand better pay and conditions with the national team.
It is hardly ideal preparation for Honduran coach Ramon Maradiaga, who only took charge in September, following the dismissal of Spaniard Albert Roca after the Gold Cup and failed negotiations with interim coach Jorge Rodriguez.
Kickoff time: 9 p.m. EST
TV channel: Univision Deportes, UniMás
Live stream: Univision.com