There were several points during the Hexagonal where it looked like Mexico might not even reach Friday’s draw in Bahia. El Tri owed its presence in the World Cup draw to some unexpected heroics from American — and MLS Cup finalist — Graham Zusi in Panama City and a belated resurgence to cast aside New Zealand in a playoff. The entire process lacked authority and the conviction.
And yet Mexico reaped the benefits when it landed in Group A with Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon. It isn’t an ideal set of circumstances — but it also isn’t a worst-case scenario. It certainly will exact a significant physical toll given the vast distances between the group matches in Natal, Fortaleza and Recife. Even with those considerations in mind, this is a manageable draw that provides El Tri with a genuine opportunity to advance to the round of 16 for a sixth consecutive tournament.
The journey starts with perhaps the most straightforward task of the three with a date against Cameroon in Natal on June 13. Samuel Eto’o leads the efforts from the front and presents a threat even on the downside of his career, but the depth and strength within the ranks does not compare to previous incarnations of this side. Cameroon manager Volker Finke compensated for the frailty in defense and midfield by entrenching during qualifying and installing a shape capable of absorbing pressure. Mexico usually prefers to counter when it reaches the World Cup, but this assignment might play neatly into Miguel Herrera’s desire to play swiftly through midfield and prompt the opposition to cope with foray after foray.
Mexico landed in Group A where it will face Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon (Image: FOX Soccer).
If Mexico can procure the full three points in its first match, then it will enter the second game against Brazil in Fortaleza four days later with some latitude. The experience of playing the home side in the Confederations Cup in June offers El Tri some grounding for this exacting affair. It might not help. This isn’t the sort of encounter Mexico is expected to win and it isn’t a particularly favorable matchup, either. Brazil’s combination of ambition and power might provide Mexico with a chance to break quickly at points, but the overall tempo of the match could simply prove too brisk for a side more comfortable at a slower pace.
Three points from two matches would place Mexico in a position to qualify with a victory in the final fixture against Croatia in Recife on June 23. The schedule favors El Tri here with the Croatians consigned to the Amazon for a date against Cameroon five days earlier and forced to travel a significant distance to close out group play. Most teams would sit deeply in these circumstances, but Niko Kovac’s side isn’t particularly adroit at repelling the opposition.
Croatia prefers to press the initiative with Luka Modric pulling the strings and Mario Mandžukic (presumably back from the ban incurred for his senseless dismissal in the second leg of the playoff triumph against Iceland) finishing the moves inside the penalty area. It is a dynamic that will place Mexico under duress at the back and present an opportunity to exploit those natural spaces on the break. These operating principles present Mexico with a reasonable chance of success, especially if Mandžukic’s potential absence leaves Croatia adrift heading into the final match.
A plausible route to the final 16 is all Mexico could reasonably demand at this stage. Miguel Herrera and his players must toil diligently over the next few months to position themselves to take it. There is a lot of work ahead to improve this squad to the necessary standard and prepare for the threats ahead. Any sort of slip along the way will endanger their World Cup voyage.
There is time to contemplate the particulars of the journey and ponder the wider ramifications. For now, Mexico will take some solace in the lot provided. It isn’t the best. It isn’t certainly the worst. It merely presents a plausible road to the knockout stage. At this point and after the travails of the past year, it is exactly the sort of scenario El Tri can embrace as it commences its preparations for next summer in earnest.