FOX Soccer Exclusive
Will Mexico return to core principles?
Nearly 20 years have passed since the last time Mexico left Honduras with a victory or a point in a World Cup qualifying match.
Forget the vast difference in relative strength between the two countries for much of that time frame. It never matters when Mexico lands in San Pedro Sula. For some reason, the Hondurans always turn the trip into a nightmare.
On each of the past four occasions, the Mexicans have departed with a defeat. The last trip – a ghastly 3-1 loss at Estadio Olimpico in 2009 – ushered the ill-fitting Sven-Göran Eriksson out the door. And, somehow, the dismissal of the well-traveled manager represents perhaps the best memory from this particular fixture since that fateful 4-1 win back in 1993.
A similar setback on Friday afternoon will place Mexico boss José Manuel de la Torre and his players under significant pressure ahead of the United States' visit to Estadio Azteca on Tuesday. Although another failure in Honduras likely won't mean much in terms of qualifying for the World Cup, it will increase the chatter about the direction of the program and the failure to meet expectations in the early stages of the Hexagonal.
In order to stop those discussions before they start in earnest, Mexico must learn from its impotent performance in the 0-0 draw with Jamaica last month and return to its principles ahead of its second encounter.
De la Torre received a helpful, if somewhat unfortunate, nudge in the proper direction when Oribe Peralta suffered a knee injury in Santos Laguna's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal victory over Houston last week. Peralta usually featured from the start to provide Javier Hernández with a natural partner up front, but his presence did not yield the anticipated benefits. Recent performances – including that scoreless draw at the Azteca – suggested the deployment of a second striker presented more problems than it solved by limiting the effectiveness of the midfield operators.
Instead of turning to Aldo de Nigris and Rafael Márquez Lugo as direct replacements in a bid to persist with that approach, De la Torre moved in a different direction. He handed Omar Bravo his first El Tri call-up in four years to supply some guile, included Raúl Jiménez as a potential option off the bench and paved the way for a return to the 4-2-3-1 formation that yielded significant results last year.
The decision to place faith in the class and the movement of the likely front four – striker Hernández plus Andrés Guardado on the left, Giovani dos Santos through the middle and Javier Aquino on the right – appears wise at first glance. Within this particular setup, those four players possess the latitude to interchange freely without placing the entire shape in peril. The dynamic work between those creative influences should provide an opportunity or two to snatch a goal along the way, particularly with dos Santos in such inspired form for Mallorca as of late.
Safer selections behind those adventurous players will facilitate the counter and increase the solidity within the shape. Monterrey duo Severo Meza and Jesús Zavala (recalled after returning to fitness and form) should return to the starting XI to provide a greater level of trust within the ranks. Zavala and Carlos Salcido form a competent and effective holding duo capable of coping with the energetic Roger Espínoza, while Meza will almost certainly replace the omitted Paul Aguilar to restore a back four – Meza on the right, Héctor Moreno and Maza Rodríguez in the middle and Jorge Torres Nilo on the left – that performed well for much of last year. The defensive foundation will prove particularly critical against a Honduras side with two capable forwards in Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly and an incisive winger in Boniek Garcia.
In the wake of a disappointing stalemate that came far too close to ending in defeat, de la Torre needed to eschew experimentation and turn to his established players to produce a response. Peralta's injury perhaps shepherded through the necessary formation change, but the final tactical outcome matters far more than the process used to achieve it in this instance.
And the desired result – a draw at the very least to end the losing streak and a deserved victory in the best-case scenario – remains a distinct possibility if Mexico translates the quality within its ranks into its performance. Nothing is certain, however: especially not in a country where El Tri has fallen short so often in the past.