FOX Soccer Exclusive
Can Mexico finally backup their talk?
Listen carefully to the words uttered by Miguel Herrera. They hit all the right notes. They fit the difficult task awaiting Mexico in the tricky first leg of this World Cup playoff against New Zealand (live, Wednesday, 3:30 p.m. ET).
Herrera addresses all of the lingering concerns created by this exacting year. He exudes the confidence required to bolster wounded morale after the tribulations of the Hexagonal. He points out how things will change for the better under his regime, the fourth in two months or so. He warns about the pitfalls created by arrogance and presumptuousness.
And then he and his team step right into them time and time again. It is what El Tri does at this stage of its increasingly tortured existence. The rhetoric -- as usual -- does not match the actions.
Herrera eschewed the opportunity to name his best, foreign-based players for this tie against the All Whites. He leaned on tropes like cohesiveness and understanding to mask his belief those stars were unneeded against an inferior opponent and spark a potential flashpoint down the life if Mexico does indeed qualify. He instead plumped for most of his Club América regulars bolstered by a trio of players from Club León and Santos Laguna to carry Mexico through.
He ignored the chance to reassess his direction and stuck his head straight into the sand after a poor Finland side scored twice on his revamped outfit in San Diego to reveal significant defensive issues. He then trumpeted his starting XI to the world on Tuesday as if to dare New Zealand to summon the strength to punish him for it.
Whether Ricki Herbert's disciplined side -- cruelly stripped of defensive rock Winston Reid (ankle) for this tie -- can muster the desired riposte remains a question answered only under the midday sun in Mexico City. It is not, however, beyond the visitors to deal Mexico yet another damaging blow along its stuttering path to Brazil next summer.
New Zealand functions as the perfect foil for the wasteful hosts. Hebert extracts every last ounce of his limited squad. The All Whites rely on guile and organization to churn out results when assembled correctly. Their economical 3-4-3 formation lacks the adventure of Herrera's aggressive 5-3-2 setup and places considerable emphasis on closing down space and playing directly from back to front. It is a structure designed to reduce the strain on individual performances and stymie the opposition through graft and toil.
This squad isn't the hardened, unblemished side from the World Cup four years ago, though. Former stalwarts Simon Elliott and Ryan Nelsen departed the scene long ago, while some of the holdovers suffered the inevitable decline in athleticism and pace. Reid's absence highlights a worrying trend among the key figures with Marco Rojas, Shane Smeltz and Chris Wood all short of fitness and match practice. The rest of the squad struggles for meaningful tests for either club (if they indeed turn out for a professional team) or country.
Mexico possesses the tools to break the All Whites' resistance and fulfill all of the expectations set forth by the 105,000 people expected to pack the Azteca. This match presents a similar assignment to the confounding quandaries fumbled during the Hexagonal: figuring out a way to translate superior talent into the desired victory on home soil.
At this stage, the answer involves producing more chances in the final third -- both on the ball and through high pressure -- and punishing the opposition for sitting deeply. Herrera stripped away much of the contemplative nature of his side when he shifted formations and threw Raúl Jiménez (preferred to Aldo de Nigris for his willingness to dart behind the line alongside Oribe Peralta's more traditional link play through the middle) and Luis Montes (a winger masquerading on the left side of the midfield triangle) into his starting lineup. This version of Mexico prefers potency to possession, though it will certainly have plenty of the ball against the All Whites nevertheless.
The turning point in the match will arrive if New Zealand can withstand the inevitable early onslaught and exacerbate the nervousness of the home side. El Tri buckles under the weight of disapproval from its expectant supporters and often discards its template in a bit to furiously restore order. That sort of approach simply will not suffice in these circumstances. In order to crack the All Whites' dogged shape, Mexico must keep the tempo high and show exactly the sort of patience Herrera espouses in order to increase the pressure to a point New Zealand cannot withstand.
If Mexico can focus on those words and shun the usual arrogance usually associated with its actions, then the first leg could all but secure its belated place in Brazil. Any deviation from the confident and prudent course necessary to claim a comprehensive victory could leave the outcome in doubt heading to Wellington next week and punish Mexico once more for failing to tend to its duties with the humility required to perform them.