The successes of the past few years have increased the expectations in Mexico to the point where a pair of draws to open the Hexagonal prompts significant scrutiny.
Not that the current state of affairs creates a real, qualification-threatening problem, mind you. This underwhelming start is a far cry from the genuine shambles experienced under Sven-Göran Eriksson four years ago. Four dropped points from the first two matches – a draw in San Pedro Sula satisfies any reasonable calculus – hardly imperils the primary objective of securing a trip in Brazil.
Even in the absence of actual danger, the coaches and the players still face considerable pressure to perform well against the United States on Tuesday night. In this era and with these players, the full complement of points constitutes the sole acceptable outcome in all but a few matches.
This occasion is not one of those rare exceptions. Only a victory – preferably comprehensive and resounding – against the Americans at a sold-out Estadio Azteca will subdue the consternation and wash away the residue from the friendly defeat at the same venue last August.
It is a trickier prospect than usual given the questions in the camp at the moment. The issues do not necessarily involve an opponent still defrosting from the 1-0 victory over Costa Rica on Friday night. Instead, they emanate from the selection upheaval created by the events in Honduras.
Fortunately for Mexico manager José Manuel de la Torre, the scope of those alterations isn’t likely to include dropping Giovani dos Santos and Javier Hernández. Both players departed during the second half of the 2-2 draw in Honduras through injury and sparked concerns about their availability in the process. De la Torre dismissed those worries after the match and said he planned to have both players available for the second match in four days.
De la Torre must compile his starting XI without defensive fixtures Francisco Rodríguez and Jorge Torres Nilo, though. Both starters procured yellow cards on Friday and triggered one-match bans. Their enforced omissions leave de la Torre with both philosophical and practical quandaries to answer before he names his side.
The most pressing issue involves the shape of the team. De la Torre finally returned to the previously successful 4-2-3-1 formation against Honduras and reaped the benefits in the opening hour. Dos Santos and Andrés Guardado offered more incisiveness from midfield and Hernández struck twice at the near post to consign the previous sputtering in front of goal to the rear view mirror.
Despite the rather significant evidence to buttress continued belief in that approach, it is by no means certain that those strides will stop de la Torre from reverting to the 4-4-2 setup on home soil. The disappointing events of the final half-hour on Friday and the tactical considerations posed by playing against the deep-lying Americans may still inspire de la Torre to tinker yet again and toss another striker up front.
Once de la Torre decides on his overall approach, he must then replace Rodriguez and Torres Nilo adequately. Several candidates – including Hugo Ayala, Jonny Magallón and Diego Reyes – could slide straight into Rodriguez’s role depending on whether de la Torre opts for experience (Magallón), promise (Reyes) or safety (Ayala). Torres Nilo’s absence forces a more drastic overhaul with top candidates Guardado and Carlos Salcido currently operating as starters in other spots. The depth in central midfield – de la Torre counts Héctor Herrera and Gerardo Torrado among his alternatives – makes natural left back Salcido the most reasonable replacement.
Sorting through those issues offers plenty of fodder prior to kickoff on Tuesday night, but those debates pale in comparison to the proceedings that will subsequently unfold. The outcome in this tense affair hinges on the ability to cope with the internal and external pressures created by the circumstances and thrive under their weight against an unburdened side capable of snatching a point.
Previous Mexico sides found a way to excel in these difficult situations and secure the desired results time and time again. This talented group must replicate those feats in order to satisfy an expectant public and show this opening pair of games represents nothing but a minor blip along the way to the World Cup.