Mexico and New Zealand will meet in a match of titanic proportions on Wednesday when the famed Estadio Azteca will play host to the first leg of their intercontinental World Cup playoff. For both sets of players there will be opportunities to become heroes by leading to their nations to Brazil next year, while, especially in Mexico’s case, failure would be crushing. Through choice and constraint, both countries will be without important players.
Here are five of the key men who will be on show.
Oribe Peralta (Mexico)
With Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez one of the European-based players controversially excluded from Mexico’s squad for two of the biggest matches in their recent history, the onus falls squarely on the shoulders of Peralta to provide the goals to down New Zealand. Yet, in truth, there is a strong argument that Peralta would warrant a place as the focal point of El Tri’s attack even if the Manchester United striker had been considered for selection. The Santos Laguna striker scored in the two October qualifiers against Panama and Costa Rica, as Hernandez looked badly out of sorts, and again looked sharp against Finland.
Marco Rojas (New Zealand)
The A-League Player of the Year last season, Rojas is one of the few All Whites to be playing in a major European league, having joined Stuttgart in the summer amid rumors of reported interest from Juventus and Liverpool. The 22-year-old midfielder has not had an ideal start to life in Germany having yet to make a single Bundesliga appearance after suffering a foot injury upon his arrival. A lack of match fitness makes him an unlikely starter at the Azteca, but his pace and technical ability could see him make an impact off the bench. His Latin American background has already seen him garner much attention on his arrival in Mexico, but El Tri fans will be hoping his performance doesn’t do likewise.
Carlos Pena (Mexico)
Came into the side for the final two Hexagonal qualifiers and was the big reason why there was an improvement in Mexico’s previously listless attacking play. The Leon midfielder will be key against New Zealand in disrupting the All Whites’ likely rigid defensive shape and breaking between the lines. In Miguel Herrera’s attacking system, Pena will be charged with supporting the forwards from his position on the left side of a midfield three, as he did to good effect in finishing a fine move for Mexico’s second goal in the warm-up victory over Finland.
Ivan Vicelich (New Zealand)
New Zealand manager Ricki Herbert suffered a cruel blow in the buildup to the match with the withdrawal though injury of their captain, best player and defensive stalwart Winston Reid. The absence of the West Ham player is set to mean that 37-year-old Vicelich drops back into the back three from his usual midfield role. It will be a key position, with the New Zealand defense likely to come under intense pressure in the Azteca, and a big ask for a man playing amateur football for Auckland City and who was considered too old by many at the last World Cup. Known affectionately as “the godfather” by his teammates, Vicelich will have to utilize all his experience and knowhow to help keep Mexico at bay.
Rafa Marquez (Mexico)
There was some surprise when the 34-year-old was brought back under Victor Manuel Vucetich after going two years without playing a competitive international. The decision had mixed results, with Marquez providing natural leadership on the pitch, but his lack of mobility also being exposed. He should be more at home as a libero in Herrera’s back three when his passing ability can come more to the fore, but the former Barcelona man has to avoid the kind of error that led to the concession of a goal against Finland, which could gift New Zealand a vital away goal.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.