As every chance to right their ship has been allowed to drift by the wayside, Mexico now hangs over the precipice of the unthinkable: missing out on next year’s World Cup. In a qualifying format that allows second, third, fourth, fifth chances and beyond, Mexico has despairingly failed to take any of them. A record of one victory and just four goals scored in eight matches in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying is an astonishing failure for a team with Mexico’s quality. Against Panama on Friday, El Tri must get their first win in the Hexagonal at the famed Estadio Azteca to keep their fate in their own hands heading into their final qualifier in Costa Rica.
Yet for Panama, which currently sits in the playoff spot, ahead of Mexico on goals scored, the match is equally monumental. A place at the World Cup for the first time in the country’s history is within their sights. A night of drama is in store. Here are five players whose performances could well be crucial.
Javier Hernandez (Mexico) It has not been the best start to the season for “Chicharito." Restricted to just one Premier League appearance to date under new Manchester United manager David Moyes, he also started Mexico’s qualifier against Honduras last month on the bench. He remains a lethal livewire in the box, but with the lack of service he has received throughout the Hexagonal he has been rendered almost anonymous in far too many games.
Hernandez will hope that Jose Manuel de la Torre’s replacement Victor Manuel Vucetich can inspire more creativity in the team. Vucetich also looks set to hand a Hernandez a strike partner, with Oribe Peralta and Raul Jiminez vying for the role. Peralta is likely to get the nod, but he and Hernandez have not prospered together in the past as all too often they made similar runs. The combination up front will be pivotal to Mexico getting the goals needed for victory.
Blas Perez (Panama) The veteran forward has been in fine form for FC Dallas this season, hitting 11 goals in 23 appearances. Panama have scored just seven goals in eight matches so far in the Hex and coach Julio Dely Valdes is sure to set his team out to defend deep at the Azteca, meaning that Perez’s chances will be few and far between. But against what will be a much-changed Mexico backline, the 32-year-old must look to provide his defense with some respite and perhaps even snag a potentially vital goal.
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Giovani Dos Santos (Mexico) Since coming through the ranks with Barcelona, his talent has been well known, but his demonstrations of it on the pitch have been far too fleeting. There are signs, though, that he is ready to become a consistent performer at a high level. The 24-year-old is on course for his best season to date having struck four goals and contributed two assists already in La Liga in his first campaign with Villarreal. Yet, while those performances have been achieved playing through the middle, he may well be again pushed to the left against Panama. Still, if he can replicate his club form with his country’s shirt on his back then Mexico will have a great chance of getting the win it needs.
Roberto Chen (Panama) It has been a meteoric rise to prominence for the 19-year-old. Just two years ago he was an unknown competing in the Under-17 World Cup and playing with Panama club side San Francisco FC. But this summer he came to far wider recognition with his performances at center-back playing a key role in Panama reaching the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. He was rewarded with a dream move to La Liga with Malaga and could now add a further highlight to his young career if he can keep out Javier Hernandez and compay at the Azteca.
Rafael Marquez (Mexico) Vucetich’s boldest selections in his squad were to drop former captain Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez and hand a recall to 34-year-old center-back Marquez. The former Barcelona and New York Red Bulls man has not made a competitive appearance for Mexico in over two years but has earned his spot back due to his performances back in Liga MX with Leon. With Hector Moreno also out with injury, he looks certain to start. While his experience and leadership will be key, he will need to show that he retains enough of his ability in order to keep Panama at bay.
Match details: The CONCACAF World Cup qualifier will kick-off at 9.30 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPN News and in Spanish on UniMas.
Betting odds: Mexico are 1/3 with Bet 365 to get the victory it needs. An upset Panama victory is priced at 9/1, with a draw on offer at 15/4.