Though technically an exhibition against weak opposition, Mexico will look to the Nigeria match to regain some of the swagger of old.The Giovani Dos Santos, Mallorca and Mexico soccer federation (FMF) soap opera has cast a long shadow over Friday’s friendly against Nigeria, but with a sense of nervousness surrounding El Tri at present, it is a good opportunity to sort out some lingering problems.
The main mission for Jose Manuel de la Torre has to be to get the forward line functioning.
The stats speak for themselves. Mexico has scored just three goals in five games (450 minutes) in 2013, against opposition which are all far outside the world elite at present. All but one could be considered a home game, coincidentally when El Tri scored two goals, in Honduras.
After hearing waves of praise for Mexican soccer following last summer’s Olympic gold and back in 2011 when El Tri won the Gold Cup, playing the type of soccer that made people sit up and take notice, things have gone a little stale.
Six months to a year ago, Mexico fitted snugly into that small group of World Cup 2014 dark horses, along with teams like Belgium and Colombia, but those two have shifted up through the gears and left Mexico in their wake.
There seems to be a lack of confidence in the Mexico squad at present. El Tri has dominated games this year, but not put sides to the sword, with forwards snatching at chances and home supporters edgy and often turning on the national team.
Of course, these things can all turn around very quickly and few doubt the talent of attacking gems like Javier Hernandez, Dos Santos, Pablo Barrera, Andres Guardado and Javier Aquino.
That’s where the game against a weakened Nigeria in Houston comes in. Mexico could really do with not just a victory but a statement that it is back. Scoring a few goals and rediscovering that fluency in the final third that used to leave defenses dazed would breed confidence.
“It’s time to correct errors, find rhythm and get playing together,” said Carlos Salcido after a training session in Houston. “We have to improve. It’s a fact and we have to take advantage of the game on Friday.”
In essence, it’s time Mexico found the form that has betrayed it this year and get back on track to being a team to avoid at international level.
That and the way the Nigeria game sets up a whole summer of important games for El Tri – with World Cup qualifiers, the Confederations Cup and the Gold Cup coming up - helps explain why the Mexican federation were so insistent that Dos Santos should be involved.
The Mallorca playmaker is likely to play off Hernandez moving forward and does leave a hole to fill on Friday. Dos Santos has the ability to become the fulcrum around which El Tri’s offense is built, with Guardado on the left and Aquino or Barrera on the right. With Dos Santos out, coach Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre could well resort to two center forwards, perhaps handing Raul Jimenez a chance to shine off the back of a great season for Club America.
At the other end of the pitch, central defensive rock Hector Moreno will miss out due to a hamstring strain (he should be fit for Tuesday against Jamaica). The likely replacement is 20-year-old new Porto recruit Diego Reyes.
In goal, again it is a toss-up between Guillermo Ochoa and Jesus Corona. Both have been in excellent form for their clubs, although Ochoa probably gets the nod after featuring in the last two qualifiers.
At right back, Gerardo Flores was a late call-up due to Oribe Peralta’s injury, and Severo Meza is also in the squad, but Chepo may just take the opportunity to have a look at Hiram Mier in that position, where he has excelled recently for Monterrey.
Predicted lineup: Ochoa, Mier, Reyes, Maza Rodriguez, Jorge Torres Nilo, Salcido, Hector Herrera, Barrera, Guardado, Jimenez, Hernandez.