FOX Soccer Exclusive
Chicharito must step up for Mexico
Mexico coach Victor Manuel Vucetich said earlier this week he had determined 80 to 90 percent of his starting lineup for El Tri's critical World Cup qualifier against Panama ( live, Friday, 9:30 p.m. ET) at Estadio Azteca. A dash of prudence -- even indecision -- makes sense given the tense situation at hand.
But deliberating over Javier "Chicharito" Hernández's spot in the team for this must-win affair? That speaks volumes about Chicharito's recent struggles and his shifting place within the side.
Hernández will likely start the match in Mexico City despite the surprisingly vibrant debate over his inclusion. But not so long ago, Hernández warranted a guaranteed spot in the starting XI. His form and his health -- so long as he could play -- didn't matter. He received the sort of latitude befitting Mexico's most instinctual goal-scorer since Hugo Sánchez.
But his cushion evaporated when Mexico failed to produce on home soil and Hernández struggled to produce in front of goal. He bore the brunt of the criticism for El Tri's missteps, a byproduct of his staggering goal-scoring record (35 goals in 54 appearances) and his inability to improve upon it. The talisman appeared to have lost his magic touch, leaving his country in a tight spot. Former coach José Manuel de la Torre even left the former Guadalajara star on the bench at the outset of the 2-1 defeat to Honduras due to fitness concerns.
Vucetich had plenty of reasons to adopt a similarly cautious approach to his out-of-sorts star, though his pragmatic streak always made Hernández's place in the starting XI more likely than not. Chicharito linked up with his country with just one start in Premier League play this season. His protracted spells on the bench kept him from a pair of training camps used to establish the fundamental working principles under Vucetich. Those underpinnings may or may not include a partnership up front with Oribe Peralta, a pairing that has not taken hold despite the individual qualities of both players.
Perhaps those facts might inspire a drastic change at some other stage, but now is not the time to leave Hernández out of the mix. The stakes are simply too high to entertain the thought of following David Moyes' lead and leaving him rooted to the bench until the second half.
This date with the Canaleros is the most important game Mexico has played in several years. A second consecutive defeat on home soil would end any reasonable hope of booking a place in next summer's World Cup. Even a draw places the objective in considerable peril heading into the final match in Costa Rica on Tuesday.
As Vucetich said in his press conference on Thursday, Mexico must adopt an aggressive posture to break the tension and put its stamp ion the game. Vucetich's likely choices in other areas -- a pair of attacking fullbacks in Miguel Layún and Jorge Torres Nilo, a box-to-box roamer in Carlos Peña to partner Jesús Zavala in central midfield and a pair of schemers in Giovani dos Santos and Christian Giménez out wide -- reinforce those words with the necessary support for Hernández in the expected 4-4-2 shape.
The ambitious deportment on home soil isn't much of a change, but Mexico must find a way to generate more cohesiveness and incisiveness in the final third to claim its first home win in the Hexagonal. One goal in four matches at Estadio Azteca hardly represents the haul expected of a side capable of slicing teams apart with its movement and its precision. The poor output stems from an inability to carve open resolute adversaries with the necessary creativity in the final third, conjure opportunities to exploit deep-lying opponents on the counter or take the odd chances as they are presented.
Vucetich has done all he can to address the first issue, but he needs Hernández and Peralta to solve the second one. Although they have not combined as deftly as expected in the past, they possess the tools to do so against Panama. Peralta provides a reliable touchstone in the middle of the field, dropping off to link passing sequences and usher other players into the play. Hernández must complement him with active movement on and off the ball to stretch the Panamanian shape (pulling defensive fulcrum Felipe Baloy out of position features among the primary tasks for the evening) and work himself into the areas where he can pounce.
Despite his recent problems for both club and country, Hernández still gives Mexico the best opportunity to convert those opportunities and secure the necessary result against Panama. Even though his place in the team is no longer certain, his enduring ability to deliver in the right circumstances remains concrete. He must marshal those qualities once more to dispel the debate about his place in the side once and for all and keep El Tri's flickering World Cup hopes alive for a few more days.