FOX Soccer Exclusive
Tension to spill over in crunch clash
Every instance of frustration and humiliation suffered by Mexico this year has increased the pressure on El Tri to untenable levels.
Somehow, the tension will be released when Honduras visits Estadio Azteca (live, Friday, 9:30 p.m. ET).
This World Cup qualifier functions as a decisive and formative fixture, the sort of encounter capable of changing the destiny of a team and its components. It is fraught with peril. It is haunted by the failures of the recent past. It is heightened by the binary nature of the outcomes involved.
Victory offers relief, if not salvation. It carries Mexico to 11 points from seven games, five points short of the threshold usually required to book a place in the World Cup. It reduces the need to procure a point or three in Columbus on Tuesday. It soothes an infuriated group of supporters hardly satiated by the 4-1 triumph over Côte D'Ivoire in August. It takes away most of the danger from this qualification process, even with just one home fixture against Panama remaining in October.
Draw or unfathomable defeat instigates introspection and alteration. Embattled coach José De la Torre – barring some miracle, though he has managed to last this long amid the fervent and vocal opposition of his people – likely departs. Most of the players would find their places under threat for the trip to Crew Stadium. And the team, as a whole, would grapple with a considerably more complicated route to the World Cup, perhaps with an unexpected diversion through New Zealand if the results in October fall unkindly.
This stark set of choices should not emerge at this juncture of the qualifying campaign given El Tri's stature within the region. Mexico possesses the players to lord over CONCACAF with the United States and sail through the usually treacherous Hexagonal. It usually takes the roundabout way – Sven-Göran Eriksson's halting campaign last time around, for instance – nonetheless.
El Tri has squandered its advantages and watched inferior sides snatch draws time and time again throughout the Hexagonal. Five stalemates in six outings – including three scoreless affairs at Estadio Azteca, a sacrilege barely within the realm of possibility before the peculiar sequence of events unfolded – reinforced the flaws within the formidable ranks and sparked a crisis of confidence when presented with a chance to put the opposition to the sword.
Each successive rebuke – and there were quite a few along the barren way – buttressed the questions about the resolve of this group and ratcheted the concern and the fury accordingly. Poor diversions through the Confederations Cup and the Gold Cup (admittedly with a weakened squad) stoked the angst even further. And now this group finds itself in a situation where nothing short of victory will guarantee its survival in its present state.
Fortunately for Mexico, the necessary triumph remains well within reach. De la Torre must sort through a host of selection issues, but the return of Javier Hernández and Oribe Peralta from injury strengthens his hand considerably. The sum of the parts creates a formidable unit capable of overcoming its recent inability to translate possession into incisiveness and turn its dominance into results.
Honduras enters this affair with more modest ambitions. Luis Fernando Suárez's outfit thrives at home and wilts on the road. The previous three away performances – zero goals scored, zero points gained – suggest the visitors will enter Estadio Azteca with an ardent desire to replicate the defiant feats of Costa Rica, Jamaica and the United States on their trip to Mexico City and little more.
Whether they can procure the same rewards remains up for some debate. Honduras must confront a stronger Mexico side with ample incentive and firmer backing to thrive in these circumstances. El Tri withered when its fans turned against them during the struggles earlier this year, but the stakes now are too high for that sort of treatment. Any displeasure must manifest in support, at least until the final whistle.
At that point, Mexico will find its future dictated by how it managed the pressure heaped upon it. If it channels the expectation for the greater good, then it will enter the final phase of this qualifying campaign in the proper stead. If it cracks under the weight of the situation, then it could plunge straight into chaos.
Either way, the unbearable tension will dissipate. Whether its release will prove cathartic or infuriating hinges on the final result.