FOX Soccer Exclusive
Mexico shows up during crunch time
The weight of expectation saddled Mexico with demons it could not exorcise for much of this year. El Tri buckled in difficult situations and watched its direct World Cup berth disappear through a mixture of arrogance, turmoil and upheaval.
It led to this do-or-die date with New Zealand, a two-legged rescue mission against an inferior opponent incapable of handling Mexico at its best. And at the last possible moment, Mexico finally produced it.
Miguel Herrera's side swept aside the tattered All Whites by a 5-1 scoreline that hardly reflected the dominance displayed at Estadio Azteca on Wednesday afternoon. Oribe Peralta scored twice and Paul Aguilar, Rafa Márquez and Raúl Jiménez also found the scoresheet to propel Mexico within touching distances of its precious place in next summer's tournament.
Mexico, for the first time in a while, left nothing chance. It produced the sort of display New Zealand simply could not match or withstand. And it reaped the benefits by essentially rendering the second leg in Wellington next week irrelevant and finally vanquishing any lingering doubts about whether this side would somehow falter yet again.
The overwhelming show of might justified Herrera's decision to omit his European-based players, his faith in his Club América charges (seven named in the starting XI) and his successful implementation of the 5-3-2 setup he uses at the club level. It also constituted the first rehabilitative step for this battered Mexico side as it starts its preparations for Brazil in earnest when it travels to New Zealand on Saturday.
Mexico approached the opening stages of this critical match with the endeavor and the patience required to place New Zealand under constant duress. The visitors entrenched inside their own half from the opening whistle and invited El Tri to commit numbers into the attack. The heavy favorites complied by pushing the wingbacks high up the field, retaining possession deftly (82 percent in the decisive opening stanza) and using the width of the field to unpack the All Whites' 3-4-3/5-4-1 setup.
It took a bit longer than expected to pose genuine questions of New Zealand goalkeeper Glen Moss, though. The veteran number one did well to punch off the line after Jiménez nearly turned home after Miguel Layún's deep cross created chaos inside the penalty area. He mustered yet another fine stop after 24 minutes when he pushed Francisco "Maza" Rodríguez's effort from distance onto the top of the crossbar.
The pressure built and built as the first half progress and placed New Zealand under the sort of duress it simply could not withstand without the services of injured captain Winston Reid (ankle). It finally told as Mexico engineered a deserved breakthrough shortly after the half-hour mark.
New Zealand contributed to its own demise by failing to clear the initial service properly or figuring out how to dispatch Luis Montes' clipped diagonal toward the top of the goal area. Moss came off his line when he should have delegated the duties to his defense and flapped at the service. The rebound fell kindly to Aguilar at the back post and the América fullback turned home the opener to relieve some of the lingering tension inside Estadio Azteca.
The opener allowed Mexico to search earnestly for the killer second before the interval. Peralta thought he secured it shortly after Aguilar struck, but he ventured into an offside position before turning home. Moss then produced two fine saves in quick succession on Jiménez and Montes before ultimately relenting just seconds later.
Mexico exploited New Zealand's zonal marking approach from set pieces and exposed the inability to react to the service from the resulting corner kick. The ball eventually popped free for Jiménez to turn home at the far post and stake El Tri to a two-goal lead at the interval.
Peralta removed any semblance of doubt about the result by notching Mexico's third three minutes after play resumed. Rafa Márquez started the move with a sumptuous diagonal from right to left to play Layún through on the flank. Layún provided the perfect service to allow Peralta to float away from his marker and tuck home the critical third.
At this stage, the focus turned to how many Mexico might score and whether New Zealand could somehow limit the damage. Moss continued to repel El Tri as best he could and Herbert used all three of his substitutions to inject some energy, but the legs faded in the altitude as the second half progressed and the home side took advantage in the final quarter of an hour.
Peralta benefited from another Márquez diagonal and another perfect delivery from Layún to head home his second with 10 minutes to play. Márquez made it five four minutes later when he took advantage of some slack marking on a short corner to nod home.
Second-half substitute Chris James pegged Mexico back when he lashed a second ball off the inside of the near post with five minutes to play, but his effort hardly provided any consolation for the All Whites on a miserable day in Mexico City.
The same could not be said for the beleaguered and expectant supporters at the Azteca, though. There is still work ahead in Wellington, but the job is essentially done. The jubilant atmosphere inside the ground at the final whistle reflected the drastically improved state of affairs. At long last, Mexico finally looks on course for Brazil.