Crunch time for Mexico as Gold Cup group stage concludes

CHARLOTTE, N.C. —

Forget about the easy path. Mexico veered gradually off the course with each subsequent miss against Guatemala. El Tri exhibited complete dominion over the game without actually securing it. The inability to translate superiority into end product left El Tri in a rather tricky spot after the 0-0 draw in Phoenix on Sunday.

Mexico flubbed one of its two straightforward affairs and opened up the door to a rather more difficult road. There is no latitude left now in the group finale against Trinidad and Tobago (live, 8:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2, FOX Sports Go). It is a must-win affair to book a date with Panama as Group C winners and sidestep a fraught meeting with Costa Rica in the last eight in the process.

"In a tournament like this, you have to win," Mexico manager Miguel Herrera told reporters on Tuesday. "The important thing is to play well and win. I remember in the game against Guatemala, we had 81 percent to 19 percent possession of the ball, yet we could not score, which is the most important thing."

Mexico floundered yet again in its bid to break down dogged, organized opposition. This team is best suited to operate in space and spring forward on the counter. The technicians on display combine neatly when stretching the opposition after winning possession. Those principles are difficult to enact when a team like Guatemala sets a deep line and soaks up all sorts of pressure. The output — Mexico managed just four shots on goal — failed to reflect the state of the game.

Mexico needs more cadence on the ball, more creativity in the buildup, and more precision inside the penalty area to break down such dogged opposition. The difference between one point and three points looms in one missed chance — Oribe Peralta found himself particularly culpable in the second half — or one sequence to end the resistance.

It is not necessarily time to panic, though Herrera dealt with an increasingly stringent line of questioning and watched some of the goodwill from the resounding victory over Cuba fade away in short order. It is, however, time to make sure the advantage in possession turns into the necessary victory.

"We are calm because the performance has been good," Herrera said. "We ended up frustrated after dominating the games from start to finish, but we could not finish all of the opportunities we had. If we are better, then it should show up on the scoreboard."

At this point, the question is whether Herrera plans to make any alterations to ensure greater production. Most of the debate surrounds the straight choice between Peralta and Giovani dos Santos up front. Peralta bagged a hat trick against Cuba, but his wastefulness against Guatemala threatened his place. Giovani boasts considerable chemistry with former youth national teammate Carlos Vela and supplies more invention in the final third. Herrera must weigh whether those qualities warrant sacrificing the aerial strength provided by Peralta.

There are other potential alterations at hand to spark the side to life. Héctor Herrera is stranded on the right after performing well at the World Cup and for FC Porto in a central role. Carlos Esquivel is hoping to reclaim the berth yanked from him on the eve of the tournament. Jesús Corona is waiting for an opportunity to feature from the start even though Mexico is playing a 4-4-2 well suited to his work in the wide areas. And the rest of the team must lift its levels accordingly to ensure more sharpness across the board.

Trinidad and Tobago enters this final group match with a place in the last eight secured and with the knowledge that a draw cinches the Group C title and a date with Panama in East Rutherford, N.J. on Sunday. T&T coach Stephen Hart may rest captain Kenwyne Jones with the Bournemouth forward currently sitting on a yellow card. T&T can ill afford to contest a quarterfinal against Costa Rica or Panama without its talisman.

Jones’ potential omission and T&T’s willingness to commit numbers forward at points offer rare strokes of good fortune for Mexico, but the Mexicans must take advantage of them. There is an incentive now with the fixtures confirmed. El Tri can avoid admittedly out-of-sorts Costa Rica with the right result. Herrera isn’t stuck on those eventualities, though. He plans to guide his team along any path necessary to reach the desired objective.

"You do not have to avoid anyone if you want to win a competition," Herrera said. "To be champion, you have to meet them in the stage you meet them. And we don’t think we have to avoid anyone. We have to be ready to face whoever is needed."