FOX Soccer Exclusive
Mexico under pressure to deliver
The tension within the Mexico ranks ahead of three World Cup qualifiers revealed itself through an old-fashioned club vs. country wrangle before Friday's friendly against Nigeria in Houston.
Mallorca desperately wanted to keep Giovani dos Santos for its last-gasp attempt to produce a magical escape from La Liga trap door. The relegation-threatened side requires a victory against Real Valladolid and defeats for rivals Deportivo La Coruña, Celta de Vigo and Real Zaragoza to avoid the drop on Saturday.
In such desperate situations, the two involved parties usually find a way to reach a suitable accord. Mexico is well within its rights to expect dos Santos to link up with his El Tri teammates five days before the game under FIFA guidelines, but the circumstances could have warranted some variation in the usual protocol. Mallorca even offered to fly dos Santos to Jamaica by private plane ahead of the World Cup qualifier in Kingston on Tuesday in a bid to retain his services.
The Mexican federation instead applied pressure through FIFA to ensure dos Santos reported by Friday. He probably won't play against the Nigerians at Reliant Stadium after the long journey from Spain, but his presence underscores the pressure on El Tri to perform well in the last match before three critical World Cup qualifiers.
Nothing – not even travel itineraries for the likes of dos Santos and fellow Spanish-based teammates Javier Aquino and Andrés Guardado – can be left to chance with the way Mexico has started the Hexagonal. The overwhelming favorites to progress at the top of the table continue to flail around in a manner hardly befitting their stature within CONCACAF. A haul of three points from three games improbably leaves them outside the top four before the fixtures against Jamaica, Panama (June 7 in Panama City) and Costa Rica (June 11 in Mexico City).
The pressure created by the poor start – defeats in Jamaica and Panama could genuinely plunge Mexico into a modest amount of trouble – extends to this last preparatory match against Nigeria. The Super Eagles do not pose the threat they did when Sunday Oliseh and Jay-Jay Okocha roamed through midfield and Nwankwo Kanu plundered up top, but the Confederations Cup participants do boast Chelsea duo Victor Moses and Mikel John Obi and a smattering of other European-based players in their squad.
De la Torre will hope to use this friendly against a mobile and physical Nigerian outfit to locate the missing attacking verve and prepare for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. He offered few surprises in his 23-man squad – even the belated selection of once-capped Cruz Azul fullback Gerardo Flores in place of the injured Oribe Peralta barely registered a ripple given Flores' domestic form – for this friendly, the World Cup qualifiers and the upcoming Confederations Cup. Now he must address his remaining selection questions and manage the energy expended in this friendly carefully in order to ensure his players hit top form on Saturday.
Most of the intrigue surrounds the potential introduction of Pablo Barrera into the starting lineup for meaningful matches. Barrera ended the Liga MX campaign in devastating form for Cruz Azul and supplies a craftier option out on the right flank than Villarreal winger Aquino. His performance in the soporific 0-0 draw with Peru last month did not hit those domestic heights, but his experience at this level and his recent displays could warrant a chance to displace Aquino from his usual berth.
De la Torre will once again contemplate his seemingly perpetual battle with the shape (4-2-3-1 versus 4-4-2 with neither setup really producing the desired output in the final third at the moment) and weigh whether he needs to institute more drastic alterations to his settled side to procure better results. The date against Nigeria isn't ideal for experimentation given its close proximity to the visit to The Office, but he could tinker around the edges with dos Santos and Héctor Moreno (thigh) likely to miss out. Diego Reyes, Ángel Reyna and Gerardo Torrado feature among a group of players hoping to receive an opportunity to stake their claim for regular match action over the next fortnight.
This affair kicks off a hectic and potentially vital stretch for Mexico. The disappointing start to the Hexagonal removed much of the margin for error and stoked inevitable discussion about de la Torre's long-term future with the team. Victory over Nigeria won't solve any those problems, but it could bolster morale before dos Santos and Moreno return to the fold and the squad faces a considerably trickier task in Kingston on Tuesday.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.