By Tom Marshall
Upcoming friendly matches for World Cup nations offer the last chance to iron out problems, refine details of how the team will play, and provide a chance for players to stake late claims for starts.
At least, that is the case for most teams heading to Brazil 2014. But for Mexico, the matches against Israel, Ecuador, Bosnia and Portugal will arguably be more important than for any other nation.
The qualification process left Mexico reeling, with Miguel Herrera coming in last November to resuscitate a side that had gradually lost confidence and its identity during 2013.
But it wasn’t just a case of some inspirational team talks and applying jumper cables to get the Mexican side functioning; Herrera changed Mexico’s entire DNA, introducing a new set of players to international football and switching from a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation to a 5-3-2.
You only have to look at club sides to see what a radical transformation in formation and playing style entails. It takes time on the training pitch and games, getting the right players on board, and making sure they both understand and apply what is required in their new roles.
Herrera is now scrambling to put together a functioning team and has just 360 minutes of football to do so. It’s not an impossible task, but it is far from ideal. Momentum and instilling confidence into the players will be key.
In goal, all the murmurs coming out of the squad suggest Guillermo Ochoa, Jesus Corona and Alfredo Talavera start on equal footing. They will be given a full match each before the Portugal game, when Herrera will start what he has said will be his 11 for the first World Cup game on June 13 against Cameroon.
It would be a surprise if the three centre-backs weren’t Diego Reyes, Rafa Marquez and Hector Moreno, with Paul Aguilar as right wing-back and Miguel Layun on the left, but Andres Guardado will get playing time in the friendlies and will be hoping to stake his claim at left wing-back, perhaps with Layun replacing Aguilar on the right.
In Herrera’s midfield, no player would seem to be a definite starter at present, and the coach needs to find three players that have chemistry and a balance at the heart of the side.
The easiest option would be to plug in the Leon bicampeon trio of Jose Juan “Gallito” Vazquez, Carlos Pena and Luis Montes, but that would mean leaving out Hector Herrera, who has had a good season for Porto.
Up front, Herrera’s job is no easier. There are five players for two positions, with Giovani Dos Santos, Oribe Peralta and Javier Hernandez all established internationals and youngsters Raul Jimenez and Alan Pulido having burst onto the scene over the last 12 months.
It may well be a case of which partnership works best, and these friendlies will give Herrera the chance to experiment with something that should be much closer to being resolved so close to the World Cup. There are plenty of combinations, with Dos Santos alongside Peralta or Hernandez probably just about the favourite at the moment. Nothing should be discounted, though, with Herrera a fan of both Pulido and Jimenez.
There may only be 18 days until the World Cup gets underway, but there are more questions than answers when it comes to Mexico’s starting lineup.