Mexico coach Miguel Herrera traveled to Europe earlier this year to meet with his foreign-based players and plan carefully for this friendly against Nigeria. It marked the one and only time Herrera could assess some of his top options within the unique structure of his team. He simply could not afford to squander it.
All of the work yielded a meaningful reward in the entertaining 0-0 draw against the Super Eagles in Atlanta on Wednesday night. This side isn’t the finished product by any means yet. But it showed enough during the friendly to suggest a little work can transform this outfit into a group capable of reaching the knockout stage yet again.
This display — rocky at the start, impressive before halftime and intermittently successful after the break — provided exactly the sort of encouragement and evidence required to propel the preparations forward. It did not produce a helpful victory, but it did establish some useful foundations for the road ahead over the next few months.
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Mexico carried all of the hallmarks of a side in need of further instruction and tutelage during the opening stages. Herrera resisted the urge to select his European-based players for the World Cup playoff win against New Zealand given the adjustment process required for his 5-3-2 system. The opening stages of this match justified those concerns and underscored the need to allot ample time for adaptation in the buildup to the World Cup.
Nigeria’s rampant start also reinforced the narrow margin for error within this side at the moment. Mexico — for all of its technical ability — lacks the athleticism and the pace to cope with energetic, fluid movement through the middle third. Ill-timed turnovers exacerbate the problem by leaving the unconvincing back three exposed with the wingbacks positioned too far up the field. Only a fine stop from the active and assured Guillermo Ochoa and a couple of wayward Nigerian efforts prevented Stephen Keshi’s side from punish those missteps.
Matters improved substantially once El Tri established itself in possession, retained it more effectively and settled into those new roles. Hector Herrera — always looming as a potential addition to the central midfield mix — shuttled effectively and stung a shot over the bar to herald the revival efforts. Rafael Marquez — brutally exposed on a poor pass out back inside the opening quarter of an hour — forced a fine save from the excellent Vincent Enyeama just before the half-hour mark consolidate Mexico’s improvement.
The composure and the precision in Mexico’s side serves as a particular strength at the proper tempo. El Tri exhibited the proper level of urgency without imperiling its resurgence before the interval. Wingbacks Paul Aguilar and Andres Guardado (impressive with his workrate as he pressed his claims for inclusion) pushed higher up the field to supply natural width. Those efforts allowed for more time and space to consolidate on the ball and search for openings.
Those efforts came with a caveat, though: the continued inability to create opportunities for Javier Hernandez and Oribe Peralta up front. Both strikers toiled earnestly to check back in search of the right pass and close down Nigeria in possession, but they languished without the telling pass through the lines. The dearth of an option to stretch the field vertically permitted Nigeria to compress the space alloted and limit their effectiveness. Peralta — perhaps too familiar with this type of encounter — still managed to create a chance by besting his marker in the air and thrashing a volley wide of the far post, while Hernandez offered a generally ineffectual display before exiting at halftime with a slight knock on his knee.
Both teams inevitably caved to the raft of substitutions in the second and meandered their way to the final whistle. Mexico probably enjoyed the better of the play on the whole, but substitute goalkeeper Austin Ejide repelled an effort from the active Alan Pulido to hand Nigeria a worthwhile result.
At this stage, Mexico can feel reasonably content with this sort of performance as its preparations for the World Cup commence in earnest. The bright period before halftime offered a glimpse of how Mexico can perform within this setup. The hard work lays ahead as Herrera exerts most of his time and energy to forming a cohesive unit, integrating his European-based players into the mix and prolonging those assertive spells by the time El Tri hits Brazil.