FOX Soccer Exclusive
One solution left for Mexico's hopes
Conviction and hope carried Mexico through this frustrating and tumultuous year. At some point, the superior talent would come through and deliver El Tri from the mess it made for itself. The same pattern prevailed in previous qualification attempts. It needed to occur once more to ensure the unthinkable did not materialize by some peculiar twist of fate along the way.
The turnaround never took place. Every chance to slide back on course slipped away. Every opportunity to set things right made matters worse. And now Mexico enters the final two matches of the Hexagonal staring into the abyss.
At a bare minimum, El Tri must exceed the number of points collected by Panama to book a two-legged playoff with New Zealand next month. Matching totals will bring goal difference (currently -2 for both teams) and goals scored (Panama holds a three-goal edge in this department) into the reckoning. Anything less -- another nightmare against Panama at Estadio Azteca (live, Friday, 9:30 p.m. ET), a setback in Costa Rica next week (live, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 9:30 p.m. ET) to contradict recent success there -- will eliminate Mexico from the World Cup.
The doomsday scenario remains all too close for comfort at this stage for a team capable of far greater achievements. Instead of enjoying some room to operate on the final two matchdays, Mexico now possesses no margin for error. All of the previous missteps have created a scenario where El Tri must perform or suffer the drastic and pervasive consequences of their failure to do so.
Mexico has taken all of the necessary, if somewhat belated, measures required to prepare for this do-or-die situation. Victor Manuel Vucetich assumed permanent control of the creaking ship after José Manuel de la Torre exited after the home defeat to Honduras on Sept. 6 and Luis Fernando Tena had overseen another dos a cero four days later in Columbus. Vucetich summoned domestic-based players for training camps to instill his system and repair morale. He made the tough decisions about his roster -- Rafael Márquez and Lucas Lobos included, Andrés Guardado (form) and Héctor Moreno (injury) excluded, Carlos Vela unavailable -- to prepare for the tasks ahead.
Every choice occurred with Friday's match against Panama squarely in mind. The struggles against the small Central American nation during the summer -- two CONCACAF Gold Cup matches played with a different group of players, two embarrassing defeats incurred -- exacerbated the concerns about the de la Torre regime and provided the canny Julio Dely Valdes with a template to follow heading into this critical clash. Panama, like the previous four teams to enter the Azteca during the Hexagonal, will almost certainly sit deeply, soak up pressure and wait for a chance to counter.
Vucetich has spent much of his short tenure in charge attempting to address the lingering incisiveness problems in the final third. The necessary quality still exists, but the mandatory confidence and impetus remains somewhat more elusive in the wake of four consecutive outings at the Azteca without a victory. There are tactical considerations to weigh on the verge of such an important match, but the primary concerns here revolve around finding a way to extricate performances commensurate with abilities.
Crippling pressure makes the assignment more difficult. Mexico has not produced at a high level when confronted with arduous scrutiny during the Hex. Previous failures at the Azteca placed El Tri in this quandary. Now the players -- bolstered by their new coach and inspired by the dire nature of their current plight -- must somehow process the external weight and transfer it into something productive ahead of the biggest match in this cycle.
Qualification for the World Cup likely hinges on a first home win in five Hexagonal attempts. Mexico cannot lean on the United States to snatch a result in Panama on the final day. It must finally assert control of its own destiny and salvage this sputtering campaign at the last possible instant with a victory on Friday.
There are no more excuses available. There is no more time to wait. Only immediate triumph can justify the lingering belief in this group of players and provide the salvation required to render these travails worthwhile.