FOX Soccer Exclusive
Mexico must summon deep resolve
All of Mexico breathed again when the final whistle blew Friday night at the Estadio Azteca. A long national nightmare ended with Raúl Jiménez's stunning bicycle kick, and a ended with the 2-1 victory over Panama. The win ended Mexico’s barren run on home soil and put their flickering World Cup hopes back on track.
The relief lingered for a bit, but the nerves are back ahead of their critical visit to Costa Rica (live, Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. ET) Mexico’s job isn't done yet.
Only a result in San José is guaranteed to extend their journey to the World Cup journey. There are other scenarios in play to secure at least a playoff date with New Zealand, but the safest road to Wellington (or even Brazil -- if Honduras loses in Jamaica and Mexico wins by two or more goals) involves obtaining a point against the Ticos.
Mexico’s display against Panama provided some renewed confidence before Tuesday’s game against the already-qualified Costa Ricans. Mexico improved considerably in Victor Manuel Vucetich's first match in charge. Vucetich's cohesive tactical approach, his desire to commit numbers into the attack prudently and his unyielding faith in the squad spurred the uptick required to procure all three points at home.
But Vucetich and his players must continue that progress. Costa Rica are only motivated by a desire to play a part in Mexico's demise, but they still pose a significant threat; after all, the Ticos would love to end their three-match home losing streak to El Tri in World Cup qualifiers. Veteran manager Jorge Luis Pinto keeps his Ticos reliably organized and tells them to break quickly on the counter, usually through Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruíz.
Costa Rica's ability to transition swiftly from back to front poses a concern for Vucetich. Mexico adopted an aggressive deportment on home soil, but it must engage in this match a bit more cautiously to avoid conceding. Most of the same principles -- intelligent decisions by fullbacks Miguel Layún and Jorge Torres Nilo join the attack at the right moments, persistent tactical awareness by Jesús Zavala to provide cover and steadfast work from Hugo Ayala (if he retains his place after his late error led to Luis Tejada's equalizer) and Rafael Márquez in central defense -- still apply here. It is just a matter of striking a somewhat more measured balance away from home.
The desire to retain the proper defensive shape at all times should not temper the need to press forward though. Vucetich's preferred 4-4-2 formation provides some latitude for the nominal wide players to adopt higher positions and test the opposition defense. Vucetich might alter his shape to reinforce the central midfield against Pinto's preferred 5-3-2 setup or tinker with more conservative choices in the wide areas to reinforce the structure of the side, but the endeavor must persist in some form to create some measure of space against the generally compact home side.
Vucetich must also weigh whether to make a change up front. Javier Hernández and Oribe Peralta (perhaps the better choice given his superior work as a touchstone for the attack) would likely vie to lead the line alone, but Jiménez possesses a viable claim to displace Hernández if two forwards are included. Jiménez's late heroics and Hernández's penalty miss during the second half intensified the ongoing debate about Chicharito's place in the starting XI. There are form considerations surrounding the Manchester United man at the moment yet it is still somewhat difficult to envision him playing a reduced role given the significant stakes at hand.
Mexico's plight improved substantially with the result on Friday night, but it must still tend to its business in Costa Rica. El Tri must concentrate and muster the proper energy levels to a fate it only warded off at Estadio Azteca. The emotion expended on that night makes the prospect of reaching the same heights a few days later difficult.
At this stage of its qualifying campaign, Mexico cannot afford to fall even just a bit short of those newly established standards. Failure simply isn't an option after the triumph a few days ago. It is down to these players to grasp their destiny with both hands and seal the necessary result without any help from Panama or the United States.
It won't be easy. Nothing about this stuttering Hexagonal journey has fallen into that category. As the final act of this complex road unfolds, Mexico must summon the resolve required to accomplish its objective and ease the palpable fears back home for at least a few more weeks.