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Mexico received a shot in the arm by one of the biggest advantages the team has going for it as El Tri returned to the comforts of Estadio Azteca.

By Luis Bueno

When Mexico lost to Jamaica and Honduras in World Cup qualifying last year, Estadio Azteca sat silent. When the United States handed El Tri a 2-0 loss to start the Hexagonal round of qualifying, Azteca was barren.

But on Saturday, with El Tri back at home before a mammoth sold-out crowd, Azteca was nowhere near silence. Not only was the crowd a large factor in the match but Azteca once again provided the sanctuary Mexico have expected from el Coloso de Santa Ursula

Eight years ago, Azteca failed El Tri but on Saturday any hopes of a Costa Rican victory were dashed when the final person of the 110,000-plus crowd found their place amidst the chaos in the stands.

There is no greater home-field advantage in CONCACAF. Even though Costa Rica won there eight years ago, the Ticos were reminded first-hand that such a victory may have been a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment. With the high altitude and hazardous air conditions that engulf the stadium, teams are already a step behind the match. But when the crowd supports El Tri, the stadium becomes a true fortress.

On the road, Mexico had their struggles as El Tri had been far off the level expected from one of the region's top sides. In four previous World Cup qualifiers entering this match, Mexico had scored twice, tied once and lost three times. Each loss was a shutout, each defeat harder to accept than the previous one. Tensions were high before the game, and were punctuated by Nery Castillo's outburst against the Mexican media during a midweek press conference. The pressure was immense and even manager Sven-Goran Eriksson said he knew his job was on the line.

Azteca, however, is a friendly place to Mexico. Not only does the palace give Mexico players a boost in confidence, it seemingly masked Mexico's mistakes. The offense was not overwhelming as it has been in years past. It was merely efficient, creating opportunities when need be, finishing the best chance when it presented themselves. Defensively, the team was as suffocating as the stadium itself. Costa Rica's offense was a shadow of the team that tore through the semifinal round. Costa Rica scored 20 goals in six semifinal matches and two in the first Hexagonal game. But los Ticos' offense dried up in the altitude of Azteca. Bryan Ruiz was a non-factor. Andy Furtado did virtually nothing. William Sunsing was decent, but often alone. Alvaro Saborio and Pablo Brenes had little to offer.

The Ticos' offense were victims of Azteca. Unlike their 2001 victory there, Mexico made their early goal count. Unlike Jose Manuel Abundis' strike in Azteca eight years ago, El Tri supported Bravo's goal with an overwhelming defensive effort. The second goal was Mexico's, and the match soon turned out to be yet another relatively effortless victory in Azteca.

The qualifying round is far from over. Mexico have played one game at home and one on the road, and have a 1-1 record and three points to show for it. After the match, Mexico sit tied with Costa Rica on points in second place, one back of the United States who tied El Salvador 2-2 later in the day.

Mexico will play Wednesday at Honduras and will travel to El Salvador when qualifying resumes in June. With consecutive road games, the chance to fall back to their minimal road output exists. Mexico may once again falter in Honduras as they did in November. El Salvador may prove to be like Panama in 2005, a lesser-regarded venue from which Mexico only obtained a point.

But even if the worst happens and El Tri return home to face Trinidad & Tobago on June 10 with these same three points they set out with after Saturday, El Tri need only remember their home-field advantage. Mexico will play four of five World Cup qualifiers in Estadio Azteca beginning with the Trinidad match.

Four home matches will probably equal 12 points, if Saturday's performance and atmosphere can be repeated. Combined with Saturday's three points, Mexico would have a foot in the World Cup should that happen.

With the other foot firmly implanted in Estadio Azteca, that's not a bad starting point for El Tricolor.

Luis Bueno is the Mexico page editor for Goal.com and can be reached at luis.bueno@goal.com.

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