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Mexico to start with a flourish
The strength of Mexico in comparison to its rivals – a vast advantage over all contenders except the United States – makes anything less than comfortable progression through the Hexagonal unacceptable. Even a second-place finish to the Americans might represent something of a disappointment for a side capable of advancing into the latter stages of the World Cup.
Such lofty expectations leave Mexico with little room for error. José Manuel de la Torre's side probably won't require much aid to navigate through this tricky gauntlet, but it must do so with minimum fuss to meet the high standards set for this campaign and ward off a potentially harmful bout with overconfidence.
De la Torre underscored the importance of relying on preparation instead of talent as he pondered the challenges presented by Jamaica on Wednesday night at Estadio Azteca.
“Our rivals are important,” De la Torre said through a translator after the 1-1 draw with Denmark last Wednesday. “They are always uncomfortable for us. They all have their special characteristics and their uniqueness. We have to see that. We have to be clear. We have to analyze that. They also have their defects and their challenges. We are trying to look at all of that so we can be able to defeat them. We have to look at our conditions and our team. We have to look at it to make sure we get a good result.”
Jamaica starts the Hexagonal with similar ambitions and a keen eye on the template that sealed qualification to the 1998 World Cup. One of the key figures from that group – midfielder Theodore Whitmore – now serves as coach. Whitmore borrowed from Rene Simoes' approach and scoured England for potential additions to reinforce his squad. Jermaine Beckford (Huddersfield Town), Marvin Elliott (Bristol City), Garath McCleary (Reading) and Theo Robinson (Derby County) answered the call to diversify the available options in the middle and the final thirds.
Whitmore will rely on the hallmarks of a formidable Jamaica side – strength at the back and speed on the flanks – to flummox Mexico. This particular outfit boasts a more resolute shape than its predecessors even with Whitmore's willingness to cater his tactics to the opponent, but its dearth of accurate service from the wide areas, its spotty finishing and its weaknesses at fullback and in central midfield will provide de la Torre with plenty of avenues to exploit.
Most of Mexico's hard work will occur in the buildup to this match to formulate the proper plan of attack and integrate the four European-based stars into the side. De la Torre once again opted for a 4-4-2 in that match to provide a second player further forward, but he and his players would likely benefit to a return to the 4-2-3-1 setup that accommodates Giovani dos Santos without sacrificing the necessary solidity at the back.
De la Torre must also resolve his regular selection issues at right back, in central midfield and up front before he chooses his starting XI. Club América fullback Paul Aguilar and Pachuca midfielder Héctor Herrera earned those respective shirts against the Danes, but de la Torre could opt for the experience offered by Severo Meza at right back or sort through his midfield options to avoid testing the promising Herrera in this high-profile affair. Oribe Peralta must also wait to learn whether he will partner with Javier Hernández from the start or wait for his turn off the bench.
Those decisions, however, won't dictate success or failure in this sort of fixture given the gulf between the teams. Mexico must lean on the returning dos Santos, Hernández and Andrés Guardado to supply the extra touch of class missing in Arizona last week. The home side must also establish its dominance and its precision in possession early and maintain its concentration for the duration of the match to succeed against a side more than willing to sit back and strike quickly on the counter.
Barring any sort of abdication of those basic responsibilities, Mexico will emerge from this match with the perfect start to the Hex. A dominant performance or a dramatic flourish in front of goal might cater to those expecting a smooth path through the Hex, but the mere production of the expected result will ensure Mexico retains its status as heavy favorites in this six-team group for the foreseeable future.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.