It has been an unnecessarily arduous journey but Mexico can now finally book their flight for Brazil. In the last of a long line of second chances that have followed endless qualification slipups, Mexico will take a surely unassailable lead to Wellington next week after beating New Zealand 5-1 at Estadio Azteaca in the first leg of their World Cup playoff.
The gulf in class between the sides was evident from early on and the match, if not the tie, had been settled by half time with goals late in the opening period through Paul Aguilar and Raul Jimenez. Completing the blitz in just 18 minutes of game time, Oribe Peralta got a third just after the interval. The onslaught relaxed, before Mexico, through Peralta and Rafa Marquez, got the goals that surely render the second leg academic, despite a late consolation by substitute Chris James.
The decision by Mexico’s fourth coach in two months, Miguel Herrera, to use just domestic-based players, and mainly those from his club side Club America, paid dividends as El Tri put in a confident display, albeit against admittedly listless and limited opponents. After the big European-based stars toiled their way through the Concacaf Hexagonal, those from Liga MX put in a strong plea to be given a prominent role in Brazil. Yet, given recent events and the fact that Herrera is not even certain to be at the World Cup, it would be dangerous to look too far ahead. The likes of Javier Hernandez and Giovani dos Santos, though, while smiling at their country’s victory, must know that they can no longer earn their place in the side through reputations alone.
In one of the biggest matches in their recent history, Mexico began as expected in an incredibly attacking manner with wing-backs Aguilar and Miguel Layun playing as advanced wingers. New Zealand, meanwhile, also to no great surprise dropped incredibly deep. The All Whites flat back five and rigid midfield four in front left striker Chris Wood as an isolated figure. With New Zealand treating the ball as a hand grenade, the pressure kept coming from Mexico.
For all their opponents’ weaknesses, Mexico deserve credit for producing greater attacking verve and patience than has been on display for much of 2013. It took time to for the breakthrough to come, but it looked increasingly likely to do so. And the two wide men were key.
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Jimenez should have done better with a glancing header wide from Layun’s cross, while another delivery moments later from the right-footer led to New Zealand goalkeeper Glen Moss having to come from behind his line to punch clear just before the ball carried over. Encapsulating how deep the visitors were sitting, veteran defender Maza Rodriguez strode forward and hit a powerful shot the Moss just tipped onto the cross bar. In the 32nd minute the opener finally arrived.
New Zealand, despite having so many men back couldn’t clear their lines and Luis Montes’ chipped ball back into the danger zone led to Moss coming and not getting there as Andre Durante headed cross the goal to where Aguilar reacted quicker than Tommy Smith to turn into the empty net.
The pressure kept coming from Mexico and New Zealand appeared powerless to prevent it. The increasingly ebullient Azteca crowd had to wait just eight minutes to see another goal for their side. Not being able to match Mexico for technical ability, the least that could be expected from Ricki Herbert’s side was to be disciplined defending set pieces. Yet even in that department New Zealand were sorely lacking.
From a right-wing corner, Carlos Pena was left extraordinarily in yards of space six yards out to head down toward goal and Jimenez was able to header the ball past Moss from inside the six-yard box.
With their game plan in shreds after just 45 minutes, a change was clearly needed for the visitors at half time. It came with New Zealand looking to finally push higher up the pitch, but Mexico had the perfect weapon to counter that too. Having returned to mixed results in the final two Hexagonal qualifiers, 34-year-old Marquez rolled back the years with his trademark raking long passes leading to goals three and four.
Both times Layun was the beneficiary down the left. First he controlled well in the box before looking up and pulling the ball back for Peralta, who was left unmarked to finish from six yards. There was a wait for the fourth as Mexico relaxed in the knowledge that the job had largely been done. When it came, 10 minutes before the end, Marquez was again the source. This time Layun received it wider and swung a fine cross into the box that Peralta rose to head powerfully into the top corner. On recent international form, there can be little doubt that the Santos Laguna striker warrants a place spearheading Mexico’s attack ahead of his more illustrious countryman Hernandez.
Marquez was rewarded for his setup play four minutes later as New Zealand’s marking was again found wanting from a corner and he headed past the unfortunate Moss. And while there will be disappointment that James was allowed to volley in soon after, it will take a failure that eclipses anything that Mexico have thus far produced in their qualifying campaign for them not to make it to the World Cup. And that is saying something.