Mexico coach Miguel Herrera eschewed any thoughts of pragmatism as he prepared his team’s 2014 World Cup opener against Cameroon (live, Friday, 12 p.m. ET). The preparations have gone well enough in his estimation to harbor aspirations well beyond his stated goal of reaching the quarterfinals.
“We’re ready,” Herrera told reporters in Natal on Thursday. “There are no excuses. The team has surprised me more than I expected. Every day gets a little bit easier. We can be world champions.”
His optimism — sparked in response to a query about recent and more realistic comments made by United States coach Jürgen Klinsmann — offers a glimpse into the mindset in the Mexico camp in the buildup to this critical opening match. There is hope again after a period of darkness last year and a spell of transition in the early stages of his regime. Anything and everything feels possible to them after the work submitted over the past few weeks.
They must take their first step toward a successful World Cup campaign with a victory against the Cameroonians. It is the most straightforward of the three assignments on paper, a date with a defensive-minded opponent with limited creativity going forward. The path to a sixth consecutive knockout stage appearance almost certainly requires a triumph in this fixture with a date against Brazil looming in Fortaleza on Tuesday.
“It is important to start by gaining the three points,” Mexico captain Rafa Márquez told reporters. “It is our priority. But our opponent has a great team with great players.”
Herrera opted for familiarity and stability to combat the challenge ahead and reap the expected result. The usual 5-3-2 shape will remain in tact to combat the Cameroonians’ projected 4-3-3 setup. The decision to select Guillermo Ochoa over Jesús Corona in goal represents a modest surprise, but the rest of the team selection proceeded according to the widely established plan. Javier Hernández will settle for a place on the bench yet again with Giovani dos Santos and Oribe Peralta partnered once again up front.
“This group is very good, very solid,” Herrera said. “I’m glad to see there is a large internal competition. Although we have already made our decisions for the starting XI, all of us will maintain the same pace. We are all ready for anything.”
This match will require some dexterity from El Tri, particularly given the opposition and the stakes. Cameroon boasts an organized and resolute side capable of frustrating Mexico in possession. The midfield trio led by Alex Song offers plenty of energy — a level the Mexican central midfield must match in a three-versus-three situation — to close down quickly and play directly toward the front three. Samuel Eto’s presence up front poses a problem for Mexican defense given his ability to make darting runs into dangerous areas, while expected wingers Vincent Aboubakar and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting present issues in one-versus-one situation and sometimes slide inside to provide further support to Eto’o.
Mexico must rely on its own shape to frustrate Cameroon’s ability to play quickly through midfield and punish the Indomitable Lions when the their fullbacks push onward to provide width. Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layún must pick their moments to advance into midfield intelligently and switch the play with their diagonal service to pull apart the usually coherent Cameroonian defensive structure. Dos Santos must also stay connected to Peralta to ensure the center forward receives the proper support up front, too.
Mexico must also maintain its commitment, its composure and its concentration for the duration of the affair to ensure those potential advantages rise to the fore. The exacting standards at the World Cup do not countenance rash decisions in the heat of the moment or set piece lapses. El Tri cannot afford to allow those sorts of factors to influence success or failure at the tournament.
“The most important thing is the mentality,” Márquez said. “We must make the most of this opportunity. It is a showcase for all of us. You have to give more than 100 percent.”
And if Mexico can deliver on that promise with victory over Cameroon, then Herrera and his players believe the possibilities are limitless. It is now time to see whether those ambitions — and the confidence behind them — are realistic as Mexico starts its World Cup journey.