Mexico finally ended its barren run in Honduras with a 2-2 draw on a scorching Friday afternoon in San Pedro Sula. The relief of a first World Cup qualifying result in this country for nearly 20 years comes with a caveat, though: the solitary point exacted a significant emotional and physical cost.
In the grander picture of the Hexagonal, the impact of the disastrous waning stages may overshadow the professional opening hour. Influential schemer Giovani dos Santos and two-goal hero Javier Hernández limped off with knocks. Four minutes of madness from Francisco Rodríguez, a controversial penalty award and a fortuitous bounce off Guillermo Ochoa’s gloves erased the advantage and sent the visitors spiraling toward a disappointing and pressure-inducing draw.
Thoughts of a galvanizing victory quickly turned into assessments of the surprising stalemate. Even if dos Santos and Hernández recover from their injuries in time to face the United States at Estadio Azteca on Tuesday, Rodríguez and Jorge Torres Nilo will force José Manuel de la Torre to reconfigure his back four. Both players will miss that affair after incurring bookings during this grueling encounter and triggering an automatic one-match ban. And those considerations do not even encompass the increased scrutiny prompted by squandering a two-goal lead or weigh the tolls exacted by playing in three-digit temperatures.
De la Torre and his players must grapple with the fallout from the trip to Honduras as they start their preparations for the Americans on Tuesday. They must also weigh the positives from a match that offered some encouraging signs to take forward.
The primary benefit from this encounter emanates from the life showing by the attacking fixtures. Dos Santos carried over his recent good form from Mallorca to pull the strings for a side in need of creativity. He caused problems for the Hondurans intermittently and drew the foul to prompt the second goal. Andrés Guardado looked livelier in this match than he has in recent outings for his club or his country. His curling service invited Herníndez’s clever run inside of Victor Bernárdez to open the scoring just before the half-hour mark.
And then there is Chicharito.
In order for Mexico to hit top form, Hernandez must finish in front of goal as he did in this game. His precise work inside the penalty area provided a stark contrast with the wasteful Hondurans. The first goal occurred through a neat piece of movement toward the near post and an even better header back inside the far post. The second goal unfolded in somewhat similar fashion by catching out the flatfooted defense on a set piece and stabbing home again at the near post. It is little wonder that this tidy display lifted him to an enviable record of 30 goals from 45 appearances for El Tri.
By combining Chicharito’s predatory instincts with plenty of creativity and guile from the three midfielders in support, Mexico unsettled the rickety home defense. Given the recent failures in the final third, this match – admittedly, an encounter that suited Mexico with the considerable opportunities available to break on the counter – offered the desired riposte.
Now Mexico must hope for a similar reply with its defensive work on Tuesday. Rodríguez, in particular, will face withering criticism for his role in both goals. Carlo Costly drifted away from the center back to give Honduras life and then tempted him into a rash tackle to win the tying penalty finished by Jerry Bengtson at the second time of asking. Rodríguez will undoubtedly question the validity of a call, but he can fault no one but himself for lunging into a suspect challenge and providing the referee with an opportunity to point to the spot.
Rodriguez will not have the chance to influence Tuesday’s match in a similar fashion. He and Torres Nilo will watch from the sidelines as de la Torre’s reconfigured back four – a topic likely to inspire debate over the next few days – copes with the Americans and strives to avoid the mistakes that ultimately deprived Mexico of two points on Friday afternoon.
In the overall calculus, the outcome of the match against the United States will provide context for this draw in San Pedro Sula. If Mexico can recover from its exertions and sweep aside the Americans in Mexico City, then this result could serve as the necessary springboard to carry this side through the Hexagonal with a minimum of fuss. Anything less than the full complement of points on Tuesday strips this breakthrough of most of its meaning and transforms this creditable draw into yet another setback suffered in Honduras.