Victor Manuel Vucetich
Victor Maneul Vucetich has no time to ease into his new role as Mexico coach. Reuters

Some rather curious looks will have been directed your way if, at the start of 2013, you had claimed that with two games of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying remaining, Mexico would have just one win to their name and have their hopes of making it to Brazil hanging by a thread. On the back of winning the Under-17 World Cup and a first-ever Olympic gold in London, talk abounded of a golden generation and that El Tri was not only well ahead of the competition within their own confederation, but were a dark horse to make a real splash on the world’s biggest stage in 2014. Merely making it to the party is as far as current thoughts go.

Was talk of Mexico’s quality simply hyperbolic? To many experts, the excitement surrounding the generation of players was understandable, however this unit was expected to have done far more than it has in the Hexagonal. Indeed, like their rivals the United States, Mexico’s trip to the World Cup should already have been booked.

There is never just one target for finger pointing in a situation as dire as this, but arguably Mexico’s biggest problem has now been removed: coach Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre. Far from the dazzling display that overwhelmed the U.S in the final of the 2011 Gold Cup, Chepo’s teams played more and more with the predictably and conservatism of his selections. A goalless draw with Jamaica in their first home match set the tone. There would be no recovery before the increasingly beleaguered coach was finally put out of his misery last month.

In keeping faith the old guard and refusing to blood the exciting new generation of players in combination with his safety-first tactics, headlined by the insistence on selecting two functional central midfielders, Chepo sucked the life out of his team and the once imposing Azteca. It is telling that one of new coach Victor Manuel Vucetitch first headline decisions was to leave Chepo’s captain Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez out of his squad for the crunch fixtures against Panama and Costa Rica. The 31-year-old center-back had become something of a liability in the back line with his lack of pace, but Chepo had kept the faith.

Intriguingly, though, it is not the rising talent of Diego Reyes who will replace Rodriguez against Panama. An absence of playing time with new club Porto has seen Reyes, along with teammate Hector Herrera, left out of the squad. Instead Vucetitch has recalled 34-year-old former Barcelona and New York Redbulls man Rafael Marquez. Now at Liga MX side Leon, Marquez is widely expected to start in central defense against Panama, despite not playing a competitive international since that Gold Cup final over two years ago.

Indeed, Vucetich has shown a clear preference for those playing regularly and in form. Andres Guardado, another under-performing mainstay under Chepo, has also been discarded by Vucetich, who has likely also considered that the winger has been playing out of position at left-back with Valencia. That bold streak is encouraging as Mexico head into a meeting with Panama at the Azteca that El Tri needs to win to keep its fate in its own hands heading into the final round of qualifiers.

Panama currently sits level on points with Mexico, but crucially occupy fourth spot and a place in a playoff against New Zealand based on having scored three goals more. While Mexico next travels to take on Costa Rica on Tuesday, Panama will host the United States. One could argue about a format that allows a team with Mexico’s results still to be in a chance with qualifying, but if El Tri fails to produce a performance on Friday then it may well find that their chances have finally run out.

Prediction: Mexico 2-0 Panama