Mexico manager Miguel Herrera took charge of a humbled side prior to the World Cup playoff against New Zealand last year. He knew he needed to repair morale within the squad and soothe the frustration outside of it. He also understood it might take some time to achieve both objectives before his team eventually departed for Brazil.
The celebratory triumph over Israel on Wednesday highlighted the progress made in both departments since Herrera took permanent charge in December. The affair offered little more than the perfunctory 3-0 victory to the World Cup preparations as a whole given the personnel adjustments required on the night, but it supplied a meaningful sendoff for this 23-man squad in its final match on home soil and a Mexico legend in his final appearance for the national side nevertheless.
Cuauhtémoc Blanco took the field one last time in a nod to the wider purposes at play over the past few days. The entire squad met with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto at Palacio Nacional on Tuesday to receive his best wishes before leaving the country. Blanco – a popular figure by and large given his substantial contributions to El Tri over the years – offered his own blessing to the World Cup efforts by assuming a place in the starting XI and taking his bow.
Blanco played his part well by offering glimpses of what he used to do at the peak of his powers and stepping off in time to allow his successors to sort out the result. His emotional departure after 39 minutes – a slow walk off the field as he soaked up the adulation of his countrymen – delivered the sort of moment to make this peculiarly timed tribute worthwhile.
The final result didn’t hurt the cause, either. Mexico craved a victory in this fixture to generate good will and momentum for the remaining friendlies and seized it despite never quite hitting top form. Miguel Layún collected his first two Mexico goals either side of the interval to dispel any notions of a shock result, while Marco Fabián ended the night with a rasping finish five minutes from time to smooth the path toward the final whistle.
Layún’s strike shortly before the break permitted Mexico to focus on its second-half duties without the pressure of needing to break through quickly. Most of the rhythm generated on the night came after the break with Javier Hernandez a bright spot in the final third. Hernandez did not score, but he contributed in the buildup and played a critical role in Fabian’s third with his clever movement to collect a throw along the end line.
Chicharito’s influence in that moment underscored the assessments still to make. Jesús Corona’s second-half injury injected a new element into the goalkeeping debate, though Herrera said he expected Corona to recover swiftly. Blanco’s extended cameo and several absences – including late withdrawal Héctor Herrera (illness) and recent arrivals Rafa Márquez, Luis Montes, Héctor Moreno, Carlos Peña and José Juan Vázquez – limited the ability to settle any lingering questions or truly evaluate the team on the whole.
There is plenty of time for Mexico to focus on those tactical concerns over the new few weeks. Herrera and his players grasp the need for further progress to prepare for Brazil, Cameroon and Croatia. It is why Herrera will pack his squad onto a charter plane and head for Texas to remove some of the distractions on home soil and start a three-match swing through the United States.
Expect the preparations to intensify with all of the players now in place and the time running short before the tournament starts. A trio of more formidable opponents – Ecuador (Saturday in Arlington, Texas), Bosnia-Herzegovina (Chicago on Tuesday) and Portugal (Friday in Foxborough, Mass.) – awaits to help Mexico buckle down and hone its craft accordingly for the toil ahead.
This group will now tend to those duties with energy and support behind them in the wake of this triumphant exit. The past few days offered El Tri a chance to bask in the excitement at home and celebrate the international retirement of a legend. The resulting boost in confidence and morale continues the work Herrera started long ago. It is now down to this group to build from this encouraging sendoff and place itself in position to take advantage of the groundwork laid over the next six weeks.