Mexico will either end a year of unimaginable chaos with a huge sigh of relief or with utter heartbreak for El Tri’s fans and the biggest crisis yet for the Mexican Football Federation. The outcome will be decided in a two-legged playoff for World Cup qualification against New Zealand, the first leg of which takes place at the Estadio Azteca on Wednesday.
It is a match that few could have foreseen Mexico being a part of at the start of 2013 when a gold medal at the London Olympics fuelled talk of El Tri being the clear dominant force in CONCACAF and dark horses for the World Cup in Brazil. Instead, they just barely stumbled and crawled their way into the last-chance saloon.
Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre was allowed to continue as coach for too long as his negative tactics stifled the team’s attacking talent and held back the youth. By the time he was finally dispensed with, it was arguably too late for anyone to come in and make a tangible difference. Still, that didn’t stop the Mexican federation, after giving interim coach Luis Fernando Tena just the one game, inexplicably firing Juan Manuel Vucetich after two matches in charge. Vucetich’s rapid dismissal came despite him achieving the objective of securing a playoff berth, albeit with a big assist from the United States, and the team showing clear signs of improvement.
With officials saying that they will review the situation in December, the new man Miguel Herrera would be unwise to start decorating his office anytime soon. Comments from another short-lived Mexico coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson, in his new autobiography shone further light on the shambolic organization and conflicts of interests that sees Liga MX club owners presiding over international affairs.
Serious reform is clearly needed long-term, but for now it is all about muddling through for the next two matches. That notion is something which is reflected in Herrera’s squad to take on New Zealand. It is a party made up of entirely domestic-based players and with 10 of them taken from Herrera’s Club America side.
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“There are lots of America people because there's little time to work, because they know perfectly well what we want on the pitch and this way we can reach the level we need a lot quicker,” Herrera said, according to Reuters.
It is an extraordinary position for a country of Mexico’s prestige to be in. For matches of monumental consequence they will be without the likes of Javier Hernandez and Giovani dos Santos, not to mention Carlos Vela, whose exile from the Mexico team continues. Even when Hiram Mier went down injured, Espanyol standout defender Hector Moreno was not called in his place with Tigres’ Hugo Ayala brought in in his stead.
Yet, the decision also makes sense given that Herrera will be adopting a system featuring three central defenders that he has utilized at club level. In a 4-2 friendly victory over Finland at the end of last month, seven America players were in the starting lineup. Rather than having players making long trips over from Europe and then onto New Zealand the following week with so little time to prepare, the players that Herrera has chosen will at least know their roles.
New Zealand have no such luxury about picking and choosing their talent. After completing the mere formality of finishing top of the final section of Oceania qualifying, the All Whites are surely still struggling to believe that the first time they’ll face a playoff against CONCACAF opposition, traditional powerhouse Mexico will be the opponents.
That disappointment has been greatly magnified by the news last week that their captain and star man, West Ham defender Winston Reid, will miss the playoff with an ankle injury. Midfielder Tim Payne was already ruled out through injury. The starting lineup is likely to be drawn mainly from players who featured in only New Zealand’s second World Cup appearance in 2010 when they were the only team to finish the tournament unbeaten.
As then, New Zealand, especially at the Azteca, are likely to come in with a game plan to sit back and try and absorb pressure. But Mexico, despite the absence of their overseas talent, still have ample ability up front, especially in the form of Oribe Peralta, and should be able to get a priceless lead in front of a passionate Azteca crowd to take down to New Zealand.
Prediction: Mexico 2-0 New Zealand