FOX Soccer Exclusive
Mexico show signs of life in crisis
Mexico spent most of the past few months trying to locate its usual verve. The performances lacked El Tri's usual incisiveness and the results suffered correspondingly. The players possessed all of the necessary tools to locate their rhythm, but they just couldn't muster the proper quality and tempo for extended stretches during the first three World Cup qualifiers.
The disappointing displays drew intense criticism at home and prompted questions about the direction of the program. They also inspired – though no one would cop to it – some doubts about whether the usual panache would return in time for the critical matches ahead in June.
It is a touch premature to declare those problems solved, but the performance in the 2-2 draw against Nigeria in Houston on Friday night supplied tangible evidence to point toward an imminent revival.
For the first time this year, Mexico looked like Mexico. Constant movement flummoxed the rickety Nigerian defense. Precision and tempo returned in possession. Ruthlessness – manifesting in the form of two instinctive finishes from Javier Hernández – emerged once more inside of the penalty area.
The improvement showed from the opening whistle. Mexico grasped control of the match in the early stages and probed relentlessly for the opener. Hernández foreshadowed his active night by turning a Pablo Barrera service off the crossbar after 10 minutes. Aldo De Nigris – chosen to partner Chicharito with Giovani dos Santos mired in the middle of an international tug-of-war with Mallorca – foreshadowed his wasteful night by firing wide.
The birthday boy himself opened the scoring shortly thereafter in a succinct example of Mexico's best work on the evening. Tidy play through midfield placed Barrera into the proper amount of space on the right side. Barrera served yet another inviting cross from Hernández to sweep home after 21 minutes.
Barrera eventually turned the match in an altogether different way when he received a red card for handling seven minutes later. The call appeared harsh given the context, but the letter of the law prevailed and Brown Ideye slotted home the resulting penalty to equalize anyways. John Ugochukwu then placed Nigeria in front with a deflected effort five minutes before the interval.
Mexico boss José Manuel de la Torre adjusted his setup at halftime to compensate for Barrera's dismissal by making three changes and placing Hernández up front by himself. It took a bit for those alterations to take hold, but El Tri eventually worked its way back into the match and started to hit the heights experienced in the first half.
Another neat sequence provided the equalizer and secured a sixth draw in six outings this year. Second-half substitute Ángel Reyna distributed a diagonal ball in the final third toward the overlapping Carlos Salcido on the left flank. Salcido delivered an inviting cross to the near post. Chicharito beat his marker to the spot and then poked home the deserved second.
Mexico could have claimed its first victory of the year with a series of incisive forays in the late stages, but its inability to snatch a late winner paled in importance to the performance on the night. De la Torre will take heart from the effectiveness of his alterations and the response of the players to the challenge set forth in front of him.
De la Torre may feel compelled to stick with the 4-4-2 setup in Jamaica in the wake of this enterprising work. Barrera's return to fitness and form offered a vital outlet on the right and sparked the movement required to trouble the opposition. Hernández reaped the benefits of playing off De Nigris in the middle and worked his way into the right areas to plunder as usual. The increased willingness to play directly through the lines added another element to increase the diversity of the approach work. And the general solidity of the defensive shape – minus a few missteps from Diego Reyes – despite the reduced numbers.
''It's always important that your team be able to adapt to any circumstances,'' de la Torre said. ''Everything that is in our hands, we are responsible. In a soccer game, there are many circumstances that are not in our hands, and many of which don't affect you and many of which do. Some of which you can't control, but you have to be able focus on what you can make a change on, and that's what my team did today.''
All of those signs bode well as de la Torre and his players turn their attention to Tuesday's visit to The Office. Dos Santos' situation constitutes a potential distraction until its inevitable resolution over the weekend, but the focus at the moment will rest on the improvements made in this affair and the need to carry them through the next fortnight in order to set El Tri back on its proper path toward Brazil.
''I don't like to talk about myself,'' Hernandez said after the match. ''It was a good game. It doesn't matter who scores. There are no heroes. We think about the team, about the group. Every game we try to get the three points.''