At the start of the final round of qualifying the idea of Mexico requiring a playoff to secure a place in the World Cup will have been seen as an unmitigated failure. But as the final seconds ticked away on a most incredible last night of CONCACAF qualifying, those in Mexico were counting their blessings at being handed a dramatic reprieve.
Throughout qualification, as an undeniably talented Mexico side stumbled from one disappointment to the next, there was a repeated feeling that the team would put things right when the next chance inevitably fell their way in a format that makes failure quite the achievement in itself. Yet, time and again, Mexico failed to right the ship. True, there was the one moment of triumph at Mexico’s own hand when Raul Jimenez performed his heroics against Panama, but in the end there can be little doubt that their chances still being alive owe more to the grandest of favors from the United States and a ludicrously kind route to the finals.
Ahead of their victory over Mexico, Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto spoke with fervor about Mexican arrogance and his belief that it had been responsible for leaving the team in the perilous position it was then in. With a playoff awaiting against New Zealand, it is easy to think that the drama is now over and El Tri has all-but booked their trip to Brazil. Of course, that should be the case, but that is a thought that the players and coaching staff cannot even begin to entertain. Mexico should have done many things throughout their qualification campaign, but, almost without exception, they have failed to meet expectations at every step.
When Mexico welcomes New Zealand for the first leg of their intercontinental playoff, it is crucial that those in the home team not believe that their reputation and that of the famed Estadio Azteca will be sufficient to prevail. Instead, they must play with a determination to prove that they are worthy of those reputations.
Victor Manuel Vucetich is the man responsible for ensuring that that is the case. Vucetich was not merely thrown into the deep end as Mexico coach, but rather into shark-infested waters. He may have only just survived, but there is reason to belief that things will improve under his stewardship. Certainly he has shown an important willingness to make big decisions. Having excluded previous captain Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez and mainstay Andres Guardado from his first squad, Vucetich then left golden boy Giovani dos Santos out of the team to take on Costa Rica. One can argue whether all those decisions paid off, but what is undeniable is that Rodriguez had become a liability at the back, while Guardado and Dos Santos had failed to show their undeniable talents in recent times when in the colors of their country.
More big decisions will have to be taken ahead of next month’s playoff. Perhaps most importantly Vucetich will have to fix the center of his defense. Rafael Marquez brought a certain authority and, of course, passing ability to the back line on his return but was also shown up for what he is: a 34-year-old with all the quickness on the turn of an ocean liner. Alongside Hugo Ayala, who made costly errors against both Panama and Costa Rica, it is not a confidence-fuelling proposition. The return of Hector Moreno will be a welcome start.
There is better news going forward, where Carlos Pena has provided a dynamism from the middle of midfield that was sorely lacking under Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre. Mexico now looks far more of a goal threat, even with Javier Hernandez completely shorn of confidence.
These are all things that Vucetich could and should be able to address ahead of a meeting with New Zealand and then going onto a World Cup next year for which just a few long months ago it was seen as a dark horse to go deep into the tournament.
But this time, Mexico must not look ahead for what they could do, but rather concentrate on doing what they should in the here and now. One thing is for sure: New Zealand won’t be looking past November. In their first playoff with a CONCACAF nation, the Oceania winners will struggle to believe their misfortune that they must face a nation with a population over 118 million.
When and where: The first leg of the intercontinental playoff between Mexico and New Zealand will be contested at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City on November 13 or 14, with the return match at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium set for November 20.