Mexico able to tinker vs. New Zealand
The final step on Mexico's winding journey to Brazil will kick off half a world away. El Tri essentially secured its place in next summer's World Cup with a comprehensive 5-1 victory over New Zealand in the first leg; the return leg in Wellington in the early hours (live, Wednesday, 1 a.m. ET) should cap their belated procession into the promised land.
It’s a perfunctory fixture, but it should tie into Mexico’s future. New Zealand will plot the greatest of escapes, so it is now time for Mexico -- lurching giant and potential surprise package next summer -- to prepare for more exacting examinations next summer. And there’s no time like the present.
Other nations are already knee-deep in their plans as most of the big names claimed their berths with relatively little fuss. The USA, for example, is already sifting through fringe players and tinkering with their setup. Not so for Mexico, where last year’s mess encouraged similar experimentation -- out of desperation -- without providing lasting benefits.
Interim boss Miguel Herrera -- a man perhaps destined to lose that tag after the Liguilla with rumors surrounding potential replacements at Club América now percolating -- must wring more substance out to compensate for the squandered time. Herrera's decision to attack this two-legged playoff with a domestic-based roster paid off in the first leg. He chose to rely on players he could craft and mold into his 5-3-2 system and trusted many of his América charges (and the prolific and increasingly entrenched Oribe Peralta, of course) to dispatch a weakened New Zealand side stripped of captain and defensive fulcrum Winston Reid. He cannot lean on all of them to produce similar magic against better sides.
It is now a matter of identifying the players capable of performing under considerably more duress and shepherding them through the complicated construction process ahead. New Zealand aims to play its part in those evaluations by naming a comparable adventurous 4-4-2 setup with the recovered Marco Rojas and Shane Smeltz included from the start. This chastened unit – even with a couple of regulars peeled away due to suspension – should offer considerably more resistance at the Westpac Stadium than it did a week ago.
Herrera can point out the potential trouble spots ahead of time and wait to see how the All Whites probe them heading into the return leg. Mexico harbors significant questions about its central defensive trio (are Rafa Márquez and Maza Rodríguez really in the mix for another World Cup at this advanced stage of their careers?), its fullbacks (can Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layún defend adequately when placed under pressure?), its central midfield (is Juan Carlos Medina a genuine, first-choice holding player or the latest in a series of stopgap options?) and up front (is Raúl Jiménez ready to partner Oribe Peralta in the long-term, or is he better suited to substitutes' role?). Those inquiries merely scratch the surface. Herrera also must integrate the European-based players back into the squad over the next few months.
The second leg of an already-settled playoff away from home against a committed, yet inferior, side provides a decent opportunity to sort through some of those concerns at the outset. New Zealand cannot replicate the problems posed by stronger outfits, but it can supply a rather rigorous inquisition of where this group – bolstered by its home dominance a week ago – currently stands in its development.
At this tender stage and with a World Cup berth all but certain, it is an exercise worth relishing. Mexico endured ample torture and expended significant emotional and physical energy to reach this juncture. Brazil is within touching distance. Now it is just a matter of clearing the last obstacle carefully and starting the preparations for an altogether different trek with the desired result and the proper performance.